A recent global benchmarking report for the Mellon Foundation on developing expertise in digital scholarship stresses the importance of local knowledge and communities of practice to the transfer and development of digital skills. In the words of one participant, “It is better to learn from your community than take specialized training thousands of miles away.” Of course, that all depends on the opportunities afforded by the local community, including whether it contains a DH center, where much (though by no means all) DH training still happens. DH centers themselves, however, have had changing roles over the years in local community training. As a longtime director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH), I would like to consider these changes in the context of the DH center as an institution.
North American DH centers have helped humanists develop digital competencies primarily through the offering of faculty fellowships for project development. This model was originally based on one that Humanities Centers had already long been using successfully: faculty fellows receive a year off from teaching to work on a book project, in return for which they participate as a resident at the center, participating in various fora of intellectual exchange about their work and the work of other fellows. As transferred to DH centers in the early 1990s, especially through the prominent Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH) at the University of Virginia, the “fellows project model” was extraordinarily successful and influential. And, indeed, it served well in meeting the needs of a historical moment in which the great majority of humanists were uninterested at best and suspicious at worst of digital scholarship. By engaging, as fellows, renowned scholars such as Jerome McGann and Ed Ayers—whose projects served as models of what digital scholarship could achieve—IATH was able to advance the standing of the field at a moment when such intervention was crucial to its future.
We are currently in quite a different moment, however, when there is widespread interest on the part of humanities faculty and students in developing digital competencies. To my mind, the fellowship model for DH centers now constitutes an overinvestment in the few at the expense of the many, especially when it is the primary way that a DH center transfers new digital skills to faculty. Even in the previous era, this model often resulted in faculty fellows relying almost completely on the digital competencies of center staff, rather than developing any new skills of their own. This, in turn, led to all sorts of problems in the life of the project after the completion of the fellowship period. It is one thing to ask humanities scholars to produce a book and another thing to ask them to produce a major digital project during their fellowship year. We need to think creatively beyond the “fellow” and the “fellowship project” as the only, or even the primary, means for developing digital competencies.
Last year, at the DH center that I directed, the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH), we experimented with digital skills development by starting not with a fellow or a project, but with a dataset: an archive of more than thirteen million tweets harvested by our lead developer, Ed Summers, concerning the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and the protests that arose in its wake. Beginning with this dataset, MITH invited arts and humanities, journalism, social sciences, and information sciences faculty and graduate students to gather and generate possible research questions, methods, and tools to explore it. In response to the enthusiastic and thoughtful discussion at this meeting, MITH created a series of five well-attended “Researching Ferguson” workshops on how to build social media archives, the ethics and rights issues associated with using them, and the tools and methods for analyzing them. The point here was not to introduce scholars to digital humanities or to enlist them in a project, but to enable them through training and follow-up consultations to do the work they were already interested in doing with new datasets, methods, and tools. This type of training is crucial if DH centers are going to realize their potential for becoming true agents of disciplinary transformation.
The “Researching Ferguson” training sessions are the most recent iteration of what we at MITH have called our Digital Humanities Incubator series, which began in 2013 as a program intended to help introduce university libraries faculty, staff, and graduate assistants to digital humanities and guide them into digital work through a series of workshops, tutorials, “office hours,” and project consultations. We have since found that the incubator process is most effective when it helps in generating new lines of inquiry, in encouraging the development of significant research questions, and in exploring meaningful datasets through computational methodologies. Its goal is to organize the high-level training intended to acculturate scholars, students, and librarians to new modes of data-driven research, collaboration, and publishing across projects.
One of the advantages of the DH incubator model is precisely that it does not engage participants immediately in large-scale, project-based work. Instead, it prepares the ground for such work by cultivating and vetting the research questions that arise as test-bed collections are made tractable to digital tools and methods. This approach has widespread benefits, affecting not only those scholars who eventually do become directly involved in project-centered work but also those who may want to adapt a particular tool or method to their own scholarly investigations or who want to understand better the possibilities of digital work in their own fields. Its outcomes could take the form of various “working groups”—devoted to a particular set of sources, to working out the details of a technical protocol, to raising the profile of particular research questions, or to publishing resources or new scholarly work based on the incubator’s activities.
Whether the incubator process is structured as an introduction to digital humanities, the investigation of a dataset of widespread interest, or as a means for building digital capacity in a field, the great strength of the incubator model as opposed to the faculty fellowship is that it focuses on the creation of local communities of practice. Such communities are key to the successful transfer and development of digital skills. There may be DH centers with sufficient resources to afford both a faculty fellows program and an incubator program. But if it came down to a choice between the two, based on my experience I would take the incubator program every time.