Collaborating in the Humanities to Create the Digital Humanities

For class this week I am in charge of leading a discussion on Amy E. Earhart’s essay “Challenging Gaps: Redesigning Collaboration in the Digital Humanities.” Because I found the piece to be enlightening in terms of digital humanities work, especially collaboration, I decided to share a brief summary of her work with you.

Earhart begins her discussion on collaboration in the digital humanities by explaining why collaboration is important for the digital humanities. She states that at many universities in the United States, specifically Texas A&M, are creating a “master plan[s]” (27) for “research, teaching, and service … that makes explicit that our scholarly production addresses the ‘grand challenges of society'” (27). In other words, universities like Texas A&M are beginning to set goals for themselves that will determine the ways in which their research, teaching and service connect to the “bigger picture,” or society. Collaboration, Earhart claims, is a part of these master plans. In fact, not only is it one part, it is the “key criterion” (27) which suggests that it is necessary for these universities. In order to understand collaboration and how universities may use it, Earhart expresses an important difference between “interdisciplinarity” and collaboration; interdisciplinarity is not the same as collaboration. To say that a project has multiple disciplines and multiple authors is not always the same. Importantly, Earhart notes that interdisciplinary studies are currently “alive” or exist within the humanities whereas collaboration is not as widespread. Also importantly, Earhart refers to collaboration as a “looming issue” (29). It is not an “open and shut” case because it can occur in so many ways, yet contain so many challenges.

There are specific parts of collaboration that Earhart addresses in her essay. Specifically, she addresses a main concern of humanists when it comes to collaboration: ownership. She refers to the question of ownership as an unresolved tension in collaboration. How does ownership in collaboration work? In the current academic system it is often the case that more than one author to a work doesn’t seem “scholarly.” She implies that if the current system was replaced with one that rewards joint work then it may ease (or erase?) the tension. Notably, Earhart claims that the traditional humanists who reject digital humanities,also reject collaboration because of the question of ownership. The question of ownership may also be eased if collaboration were seen as analogous to a laboratory model. The laboratory model is helpful in terms of collaboration because it emphasizes new discoveries at the same time that it emphasizes research that is shared throughout multiple generations. However, Earhart warns us to not rely too heavily on this model because sciences often don’t include women and minorities in their research. She cites the Walt Whitman Archive as an example of a collaborative/lab model in the digital humanities.

She then touches on the issue of funding in collaborative digital humanities projects. There are two ways that digital humanities projects can be funded. Institutional centers that give support such as funds, skills, and equipment (33) is one way. For those who do not have access to institutional centers, there are project partnerships. However, these project partnerships can pose problems for the humanist. For example, humanists and technologists approach research and scholarship in different ways. The humanist may focus on the goal of the project or the project’s outcome, while technologists may be interested in the technological application in which the project takes place. Earhart notes that the project partnerships will be successful if both parties focus on the process of the project. After all, the process is what makes a difference when it comes to the digital humanities. Humanists that are working within the digital humanities should focus on experimentation.

Importantly, Earhart wants to “restructure” the collaborative group to include those inside and outside academia. In other words, one does not always have to collaborate with those inside the academic system. There are two external partnerships that can take place. One incorporates the academic project with business and museum/library interests. Her example is the 19th Century Concord Digital Archive. Another is the open source community. The open source community can be helpful because it invites participation from the open source community (which in other words, refers to those knowledgeable within the community but are not considered academic professionals). Earhart suggests that help from open source communities can and should be taken. She compares this to Richard Miller’s idea of “boundary objects” (37). An example of an open sourced collaborative project is BBC’s Backstage movement.

What is most important to Earhart’s discussion is her belief that a professional working on a collaborative project should be knowledgeable about the fields of the other professionals with whom she is working. Earhart says that the professionals collaborating should be “equal players” (38). If the professionals are equal players then they will be able to understand how the disciplines affect the project and therefore understand the project better. Also, the professionals must not only be able to share knowledge, but share project space.

Finally, Earhart concludes her essay by thinking about collaborative projects and the graduate student. She states that collaborative projects may be helpful to college students. A lab collaborative project can allow the student to decide how she wants to participate in the digital humanities project at hand. As Earhart states, it can “give students power to develop their own piece of a project” (40). Therefore, students will not only help with the project, but they can contribute to the project as well. Importantly, if the graduate student is involved in a lab collaboration, then a new relationship occurs between the student and the faculty member. Their relationship becomes a interdependent one; they learn from each other.

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