Day before the Day of DH

Here’s a quick run-down of what I have scheduled for tomorrow, in case the rush of events doesn’t give me time to give a rundown:

  • 9:30-11, a bi-weekly meeting of the Center for Digital Scholarship staff
  • 11:00, a meeting with the CDS directors to discuss strategy
  • 1:00-2:30, I’m teaching a session of Susan Smulyan’s Digital Scholarship course, focusing on digital object modeling
  • 3:00 another meeting…

And in between, I will also be working on the final report for a recent NEH grant, planning the readings and schedule for an upcoming TEI seminar, and making progress on some work for DHQ.

Humanities Commuting

My commute, from the semi-rural woody swamps of northwestern Rhode Island into the provincial capital of Providence, takes exactly one hour door to door. I walked out at 7:30 and drove 5 miles to the bus stop where I park for the day. The sun is just coming into view as I leave the house, and on the way to the bus I passed one mouse (drinking from a puddle in the middle of the road??!), one wild turkey (striding with purpose and dignity but also great swiftness off into the woods) and one very large but also dead muskrat. I’m at the bus stop by 7:48. By ritual agreement the bus is always about five minutes late. My bus picks up people who live further out than I do; mine is the last stop before Providence and the rest of the trip is all highway. The other passengers are a mix of office workers in the buildings downtown, others from Brown, students at Johnson and Wales, and people in the trades with business downtown. We’re in Providence by 8:20 (delayed slightly by traffic associated with the fishing show and the NCAA championships) and then I walk up the hill to Brown:

Looking back towards downtown

Up the stairs past the STG computer museum:

I’m in my office by 8:30, and looking at my to-do list (which I still keep on paper, using the junk mail I get and slicing it up into to-do-sized pieces):

Teaching a class

One of the highlights of my day today is teaching a session of a course on Digital Scholarship (taught by Professor Susan Smulyan in Brown’s department of American Civilization). This is the second year she’s taught the course and she brings in guest lecturers from CDS and other places on campus to talk about special topics. My special topic is information modeling, which we cover in a heady whirl, thinking about the properties that our models need to possess in order to function effectively “under the hood” of digital projects. The students are all working on project prototypes, using tools like Omeka and WordPress, so concepts of information modelling are a kind of intellectual prod and context for them as they think about what kinds of information they want to record and how they want to granularize it.

The discussion was good and I was struck and pleased by the ways in which students connected the examples I showed to their own work. I came up with a few good metaphors…in my favorite, I compared the difference between well- and poorly-modeled information to that between an attic and a dump (assuming that the former is my mother’s attic, in which everything is stored in carefully labeled boxes according to an exacting and well-documented system). We also looked at a range of different maps as a way of thinking about what is and is not formalized in a given system of information.

Grant proposals, end-game

I spent the last part of my day revising two NEH proposals for final submission. This is the stage at which the apparatus of funding—the various forms of accountability, the realities of what it costs an institution to receive and use funding, the authentication of process—comes briefly to the fore and pushes aside the elements of persuasion and design and strategy that have driven the process until this point.

Although most of the review and submission process is now done electronically, I still need to get a physical signature on a piece of paper from the head of my department (now the University library) to approve the funds that Brown says it will be contributing to the grant effort. That small ritual—in which I describe the grant proposals to her and sketch their importance for our group, and then present the cover sheet for its signatures and initials—feels like a courtly remnant of an earlier, messier time and reminds me of what proposal submission was like 15 years ago when I first experienced it: days of printing and collating stacks of paper in preparation for a massive photocopying extravaganza, culminating in mailing off a box of 13 (original plus 12 copies) bound proposals via FedEx. In those days our grant proposals were so long (including massive appendices) that each bound copy was over an inch thick. I can’t imagine how reviewers got through it all. Bless their hearts for persisting!

And in conclusion

From the fact that I had to finish up (or write!) most of my DoDH posts after the fact, I conclude that on a day when I actually do DH, there isn’t much time left to write about it. A number of years ago I gave a paper at ALLC/ACH on documentation that began in the same spirit, noting the zero-sum ecology of doing and writing up. More recently I found myself observing (to someone who was interested in reading up on the history of digital humanities) that comparatively little of what digital humanists do gets written up and published in a recoverable form: we share our work above all through conferences and workshops and other viva voce events, and the tantalizing evidence of abstracts and proceedings tends to be the sole remnant. We’re not yet predominantly a community of book-writers, or even article-writers. But DoDH does a great job of getting us to sit down and write about what we do, and I hope this will become a strong annual ritual. Thank you, Geoffrey and Peter and Stan!