The Mellon DH Grant: Improving DH at the Claremont Colleges

by AJ Strout

Because my background in academic digital media production is focused on social responsibility, my experience in project management is related to the digital humanities, but has never been steeped in it. Until now. As you may already know, I’ve been tasked with the great responsibility of managing the Mellon DH grant that the Claremont Colleges was awarded. Having met with the library staff, a brilliant and vivacious group of dedicated individuals, I’ve learned a lot about the scope of the grant, what will be addressed as far as improving the DH at the CC, and how we can get it all done at a sustainable pace. Solidifying the wisdom that the library shared with me was my recent experience at THATCamp, a humanities and technology meeting that hosts improvisatory sessions. The article below, which serves as my introduction to the DH community at the CC, is the result of everything I’ve learned thus far. I hope it proves useful to those who are curious about how the Mellon grant will work and provides an update to the ongoing process.

As we all know, DH are often a college’s most broad, inter-disciplinary group of fields. Though these fields rely on one another to produce useful, meaningful DH projects, they don’t always interact with one another because of the separation between departments and lack of a DH “center.” Ultimately, some kind of DH mecca is necessary to provide tools, resources, administrative support, and act as the networking hub between the departments. Since a college’s library usually takes on this role, the Claremont Colleges are definitely on track. Honnold Mudd Library is a rich repository of resources for anyone in the DH looking to collaborate, learn new skills, or network. And it’s about to become an even better reserve for these things as the Mellon grant we’ve just received gets its foothold. Easy, right?

Because DH includes so many departments in the wide field of humanities, this is particularly problematic for liberal arts colleges. Nearly every field within a liberal arts institution is humanist in nature. Additionally, small liberal arts colleges like the Claremont Consortium tend to conduct business in relatively democratic ways while larger universities work through bureaucracy. Though bureaucracy slows down the micro processes of building a DH program, it enables the program to be developed in a clear, concise, and organized manner. This is immediately clear when faculty from UCLA, SDU or UCSD speak about the DH programs at their universities. They admittedly have some of the same complications that we at the Claremont Colleges are facing, like encouraging participation and staffing administrative positions, but there is a lot of structure and organization to speak of in their DH programs.

What can we take from the big universities who use far more regimented guidelines and implementation processes than small liberal arts colleges who, though they are quite effective and well structured, still take a more relaxed approach to developing programs? Perhaps what we can learn is to slowly build a cite-specific DH center to guide DH at the Claremont Colleges through initially small projects while honoring the democratic nature of the consortium. A center which, rather than providing perfunctory infrastructure and gate-keeping, focuses on process. A center that offers an intra-active space for collaboration and which provides tools, resources, and administrative assistance. Where do we begin? We already know that lack of sustainability and access, messiness, disorganized data, and failed events are risks for building a DH center. THATCamp confirmed what key personnel at Honnold library and DH faculty have already been discussing and offered insight in many DH areas, point by point.

Sustainability

Many attendees at THATCamp expressed that their experiences in DH work have been dissatisfying because the projects are often unsustainable. The scope of the work is too large, especially when DH is a college’s most broad, interdisciplinary area of research which encompasses so many fields of scholarship. Additionally, many of these fields don’t interact with one another because of the separation between departments and lack of a DH “center.” Here are the THATCamp suggestions:

  • Slowly build a small DH center, with or without infrastructure, which can grow over a sustained period of time.
  • Form working groups which brainstorm to develop small DH projects that can stand alone as they are, or be expanded on by interested parties.

Democratic Humanist Work

Ethics were another DH issue that came up. DH goals have, at times, been focused on less than meaningful activities like fundraising and marketing, both of which drain resources and undermine the humanist perspective of the work. Parallel to this are the expectations that are often pushed onto DH projects. While a number of faculty value decentralized humanist work which is messy and experimental in nature, overseers often require DH projects to produce a substantial product that will garner acclaim. Some DH’ers also reported that they’ve abandoned projects because many are personalized enterprises meant to promote one scholar’s ideas with supporting faculty and students doing the majority of the work. Here’s what THATCamp’ers had to say:

  • Help overseers understand that failed projects often produces skill building and that the focus should be on process, not on product.
  • Working groups should brainstorm to develop a common goal within the growth process that is interesting and useful to both students and faculty.
  • Keep in mind when developing working groups that design and media arts are the most popular amongst undergrad students—these are the areas that are most likely to help them develop working skills for future paid work.

Metadata

Organizing meta-data and resources that are central to the library is of paramount concern because it is an issue on both sides of the coin: Data must be categorized and organized so that it can be further mined, and it needs to be readily available for participants to find and use.

  • Determine the major areas of data and share these with all grant participants.
  • Data Visualization: Mapping and other visual representations of organized data and their subcategories have been quite successful.
  • Holding small working group events with DH faculty can facilitate skill building and data sharing

Administrative Work

DH’ers know there are people in the library who are interested in providing assistance, but report a lack of clearly defined staff to handle the administrative work that often accompanies DH work. Complications also arise when faculty develop courses without seeking assistance from the DH center to discuss resources and available tools. Even more important is the complications that come with the heavy workload that library staff are responsible for when having to imagine service models for each project.

  • Starting the DH program in the library and hiring during the process where support is needed has provided more success than examining roles and tasks to create positions from at the start of the project.
  • Curricular Planning and engagement is successful when the library is involved to inform faculty of available resources.

DH Events

Events were of particular interest to a lot of DH’ers because the workshops and summits they held often failed to produce interest. Faculty already commit a substantial amount of their time to teaching and DH events cut into personal time. Events like workshopping and symposiums where they are expected to sit and listen are not appealing. Food has been a relatively successful incentive for some, but others indicated its inability to sustain interest in whatever projects or work following the events.

  • Small scale working projects usually produce great results
  • Workshopping should be replaced with small working groups of faculty and students get together to work on an actual project that can be grown later.
  • Symposiums should be replaced with conversations and, perhaps something that emulates the “Eat, Talk, Teach, Run” program developed by Brian Croxall and Howard Chiou.
  • A DH center would be very useful, so long as it is widely announced and its rubrics are established, discussed throughly, and implemented on a small scale to build outward.
  • Establish working group events that utilize the most popular subject in the DH: Design and Media Arts.
  • Clubs are quite popular: Media making club, Digital Arts club, Open Source club, Coding club, etc.

As DH efforts move forward at the Claremont Colleges, it’s clear that the library staff’s desire to build a DH center focused on process and sustainability is crucial to growth in the Digital Humanities. Their plans to grow through practice and involvement fosters endless possibilities for skill building, successful projects, and lasting relationships amongst faculty throughout the departments. As the newest member of this dedicated group, I’m looking forward to the challenges ahead.

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