Exceptions [Im]proving the Rules

Or, how exceptional students and their projects improve the rules by which we do digital scholarship.

As a followup to my last post, which was essentially a reposting of an email about why one might use the TEI Guidelines for any given text-based digital project, I’ll post a few observations that stem from Tess Henthorne’s brief presenation of her Independent Study (IS) to faculty and students from the English department. First, though, I’ll say that she did Tess Henthorne's Presentationa wonderful job articulating just why she wants to encode a text as part of her IS rather than just transcribe it. In short (and I hope I’m doing justice to her thoughts here), it enriches her text – Glady Fornel’s Montel – and opens its potential for future scholarship, her own and others’. I’ll also note as an aside how it’s clear that some – maybe most – of the people who are thinking about Tess’s IS as a “digital IS” are thinking in terms of visible, human-readable results. That is to say that folks are thinking about Milton’s Reading Room (e.g.) or a searchable database, neither of which is necessarily Tess’s goal. It will be a challenge for this small team to navigate the distances between different conceptualizations of a “digital project.” From scholars doing the heavy (and often inglorious) lifting of text-encoding, I’d be grateful to hear how you make these distinctions to various constituencies. How have you bridged this language barrier?

But I digress.

Tess’s presentation gave me an opportunity to reflect on the importance of projects like hers that do not fall under the direct jurisdiction of our Digital Scholarship grant. If one of the goals of the OH5DS grant and others like it is to use projects as the springboards for building the larger systems that will create and foster sustainable digital scholarship, then Tess’s project – probably because it doesn’t conform to our scripted workflows – gives us an opportunity to test our systems in the wild. It is a chance to make sure that we are building up an environment that is robust enough to foster the digital scholarship of faculty and students (and staff, ideally). So, how has Tess’s project kept us honest in this way?

  • It builds out from the technical and scholarly concerns of the more directly grant-related projects. The Ohio Five libraries’ 2015 Summer Institute helped frame a conversation about the utility of TEI to the consortium’s digital projects. Whether it is for relatively stable preservation in the face of changing technologies or for enhanced scholarship in text-based research, we have been thinking through how the TEI fits into the ways we talk about projects. Wooster has been the testing ground for encoding projects and the teams here have been pushing the boundaries ever outward; advising on Tess’s project continues this trend and, like the other projects, will inform the work we do elewhere in the consortium long after the term of the grant.
  • It amplifies the conversation about digital scholarship. I have said to anyone who will listen that we need to continue to have our conversations about digital scholarship out loud and in public so that it becomes sewn into the fabric of our scholarly culture. Opening this conversation to student constituencies, in addition to helpfully complicating our frames of reference, brings more and different voices into the conversation.
  • It broadens the audience for that conversation. Perhaps especially in the liberal arts setting, the campus community pays attention differently when students are speaking. Advisors and faculty who might not be invested in, say, “the Digital Humanities” as such, are intrinsically invested in their students’ interests and research. Alongside one another we learn how to think and talk about digitally-inflected work in places where we haven’t necessarily seen it (like Engish departments).
  • Finally, it tellingly resonates with issues of evaluation of digital scholarship. As we wade together through the technical “hows” and the theoretical “whys,” we also come up against the question of what it means to do digital scholarship on our campuses and in our consortium. In the larger world of digital schoalrship, the most visible manifestation of this consideration has centered on evaluation for the purposes of tenure and promotion of faculty in the humanities and social sciences. We see this focus, for example, in the important documents published by the Modern Language Association, the American Historical Association, and in a special issue of the Journal of Digital Humanities (Fall 2012). I wonder, though, if students’ work forces us to think about evaluation more acutely, more urgently than when we are wrestling with tenure and promotion guildelines. I cannot imagine telling a student that they could not pursue a given research question because we do not know what to make of it; instead, we figure out what to make of it. Projects like Tess’s allow us force us to explore the question locally so that it might inform the broad context.

To conclude I’ll simply say that I am grateful to be a part of Tess’s team, and that I hope we can see other such projects pop up around the Ohio Five. Most importantly, I hope that we can have the resulting conversations out loud and in public so that we can learn, as a community, how it is that we do digital scholarship around here.

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