Discussing “Challenging Gaps: Collaboration in the Digital Humanities”

In keeping with the collaboration theme in my last few posts, I decided to share with you an overview of my class discussion for Amy E. Earhart’s “Challenging Gaps: Redesigning Collaboration in the Digital Humanities.” There are three important points in her essay that I found most interesting and plan on sharing with the class. They are as follows: collaboration as a science laboratory, challenges which collaborative work presents to the humanist, and graduate student participation in collaboration.

1.  After expressing the important difference between interdisciplinarity and collaboration, Earhart states a way collaboration can be seen in the digital humanities: like a science laboratory. Collaboration in the digital humanities is analogous to a science lab because both work in similar ways. For example, according to Cathy Davidson, labs are “built around the process of discovery” (31). In other words, the purpose of a lab is to experiment, test, and discover the new. However, at the same time, labs are also a place which research is shared across generations and various fields and disciplines (31). Therefore, labs are places which past knowledge is used and embraced and new knowledge is sought after. Most importantly, in the lab, “no solitary thinker—no matter how brilliant or creative—could think through a complex problem as comprehensively as a group of thinkers from different fields…areas of expertise…intellectual generations” (31). Like a lab, multiple participants/authors/contributors are necessary in digital humanities project collaborations. The knowledge that the participants have is vast; they often come from different fields, experiences, training, and educations. Therefore, each participant has something unique to offer the project. Because the participants have something unique to offer, they are able to contribute more to the project than an individual, on his or her own, would.

However, Earhart uses the analogy of the lab loosely, claiming that the science lab contains hierarchies. (Hierarchies are not welcome in collaborations; if there are hierarchies then collaboration would not exist because collaborators are equal players.) First, there is a division between “technical and intellectual labor” (31). In other words, intellectual and technological labors are not equal players in a scientist’s lab. However, in a digital humanist’s lab they must be equal because both are equally important contributors to the project. She also claims that the science lab has a history of excluding women and minorities from their research, which also indicates an unequal players.

Notably, she uses the Walt Whitman Archive as an example for the digital humanist’s lab, claiming that the archive is treated “as a laboratory” that “generates collaborative scholarship” and “trains future scholars” (31). In other words, she views the archive like a lab because the website’s contributors collaborate to create new scholarship at the same time their archive influences future Walt Whitman (and digital humanist) scholars. I find her discussion on the laboratory to be an interesting one because it uses an essential element of the sciences and attaches it to the digital humanities. In essence, it bridges the gap between the two fields, suggesting that the digital humanities lab is a technological one.

2. Another aspect of Earhart’s essay that I found enlightening is her discussion of the challenges which collaboration presents to the humanities, specifically the way humanists approach scholarship. Humanists generally work alone. When they are finished working, they present their finished product, not the process of achieving that product. Therefore, collaborations or “project partnerships” “run into problems that boil down to differing opinions of the position of the product or process to the project outcome” (34). For example, when humanists and technologists work together, their goals can clash. Earhart states that the humanist often “focus[es] on [her] immediate goals” (34) or results.  The technologist focuses on the “application” (34). Earhart states that collaboration in the digital humanities is not necessarily about the finished product. Instead, the humanist should take a point or two from the technologist. The process of getting to the “final” project (if the project could ever be considered final) is “key to the discipline of digital humanities” (34). Failure is fine in the digital humanities. Failure can “produce more interesting results” or produce information that is interesting to publish (34). Thus the humanist, when working in collaborative digital projects, should value experimentation.

I find this discussion on the challenges for the humanist interesting because it implies that the humanist is somewhat of a perfectionist. The humanist conducts research to complete a specific end. The humanist values the end goal, the result. Collaboration in the digital humanities values the result, as well as the cause, the process. The humanist needs to be more like the technologist and accept failure. Failure is a possibility in the digital humanities; one can learn from failure. I like the idea that failure is useful.

3. Finally, I am interested in the way in which graduate students can use collaboration in their own education and research. Earhart claims that graduate students are “the future of digital humanities” (40) and because of that they should understand and participate in collaborative projects. Earhart returns to the idea of collaboration as a laboratory, claiming that it is helpful to think of the graduate student and digital humanities in that context. The digital humanities laboratory gives the student room to decide how she wants to involve herself in a project. It also gives the student the power to decide create her own “piece” of that project (40). In other words, the lab not only teaches a student how to participate in a project but allows her to decide how she wants to participate in that project. Importantly, the laboratory model creates a different relationship between faculty members and students. In a collaborative project, the parties are interdependent; they share scholarship and exchange ideas (40). In essence, they teach and learn from each other. This kind of laboratory and relationship can only occur if there is a collaborative environment in education.

I am interested in this idea because it relates collaboration and the digital humanities back to us—graduate students. It gives us a hint—but only that—of what collaboration could look like in higher education.

 My questions regarding this reading are:

  1. Last week we discussed the setbacks of the Walt Whitman Archive, specifically the colorless website, the difficulty maneuvering through and finding information, and its similarity to a printed book. Considering this, do you agree that the Walt Whitman Archive is an example of a digital humanist’s lab which generates “collaborative scholarship” and trains “future scholars” (31)? Can the Walt Whitman Archive be an example of a laboratory when it is difficult to maneuver and is more like a printed text then a digital one?
  2. At the conclusion of her essay, Earhart states that the end goal of the digital humanities should be to create “a discipline where digital is represented within the term humanities” (41). What does her goal imply? Can we imagine what that kind of new system can look like? Would there be any similarities to the system in place or would that be completely erased?
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Walt Whitman Archive/ The Walt Whitman “Arsenal”

Kenneth M. Price in his article, “Edition, Project, Database, Archive, Thematic Research Collection: What’s in a Name?” , uses an archive he collaboratively created as an example of how “archives” are much more than what that title or other titles (edition, project, database, archive, thematic research collection, etc.) suggest. His “archive,” the Walt Whitman Archive, encompasses a vast array of Whitman’s material–that which Whitman published in a multitude of mediums as well as Whitman’s manuscripts. As Price states, such a collection is ongoing, it’s not a project with an end, but one that is an ongoing. The process takes many, not just one, contributors which makes the “archive” collaborative. In light of these characteristics of the Walt Whitman Archive–and all “archives” like it–Price suggests uses a different term to describe the collection: an “arsenal.” An arsenal’s emphasis is on the product and the process to get that product. In other words, an arsenal, like the Walt Whitman Archive, is a workshop.

In light of the information in Price’s article I couldn’t help but want to discover and search through the Walt Whitman Archive for this week’s assignment. Here are my thoughts and findings on the archive:

  • Is the purpose of the site/project/archive clearly articulated?

I have never worked with an archive before so upon entering the Walt Whitman Archive I was unsure how to navigate. Luckily, the site is easy to navigate. The title of the site is clearly visible, along with the names of the editors–Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price. (The two editors make this site a collaborative project.) There are various tabs along the left-hand side of the page which indicate the various categories of the site. One has the choice of visiting Whitman’s published works, works written in Whitman’s hand, his life and letters, commentary about Whitman, pictures and sounds of Whitman, other resources, and an “about page.” My only criticism is that this “about” category is placed at the bottom of the list. Ideally, it should be placed at the top so that the scholar, the student, or even a reader of Whitman could learn more about the site and how to navigate it. The reason I suggest this is because that “about” tab has a link to a tour of the site. The tour of the site explains what the user will find in each category and gives examples of the kinds of material that they will find there. This is extremely helpful for a new user to the site as well as a new user to digital archives. This about page also clearly articulates the purpose of the site: to digitize Whitman’s work and writings so the scholar, the student, and the reader may have access to them.

  • Is the site easy to navigate?

Your next question might be, is the site easy to navigate? Is the “tour” necessary to the site or can I figure out the site on my own? My answer would be yes, even without the tour the site is easy to navigate. Each category/tab/section contains information that is relevant to each tab and information that is easily reached. For example, if one clicks on the “Published Works” tab, one will be given options on where to search next. From there, if one chooses to go to “Books, by Whitman” then one will be given more choices. Does the user want to see the Leaves of Grass editions or his other works? Essentially, the site narrows down your search for you, giving you options that are clearly defined for the best search result possible.

  • Who is the primary audience?

The Walt Whitman Archive claims that its use is for the scholar, student and reader. It’s accessibility to students/ teachers and readers is one of its strengths. Because it is accessible to the general reader, the Archive shares the humanities (and the digital humanities) with a much wider audience. The Archive assumes that not only are humanities scholars and students interested in literature, but that the general public is as well.

  • What is being done in this project that cannot be done in print based scholarships?

To answer this question I would like to take a moment to discuss the Leaves of Grass editions that the archive makes available. If I were studying Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and wanted to track the changes in its various editions without using the digital archive, I would have to buy or rent from the library all of the previous editions of the book. If I did that, I would be surrounded by books, flipping through page after page (sounds like tedious work to me!). Instead of doing that, however, I can go to the archive where the editions are all in one place. The archive does the tedious work for me, it gathers the texts together, so all is left for me to do is search through the material and draw my conclusions. The Walt Whitman Archive is also searchable. If you type in a word, the search engine produces a list of links to where that word is used in Whitman’s works. This cannot be done in print based material because print based material is not searchable way that digital material is. If I were to look up a specific word I would have to carefully comb through every page of the material in question. If I were to use the Walt Whitman Archive, the combing is done for me.

  •  How can one use it for one’s research?

An important question remains, how can I use the Walt Whitman Archive? A general reader can use this archive for curiosities sake, or to increase their understanding of Walt Whitman. A scholar or a student can use the archive for the same purposes. Most importantly, they can use it to answer their questions, they can use it for their research. The usefulness of the Walt Whitman Archive is vast. The benefits of the information on the site is vaster. The site allows the user to clearly and easily comb through a vast amount of information that print works do not. The site allows the user to narrow down their research or to answer her questions with more questions. Most importantly, the Walt Whitman Archive allows one access. It allows access to information that might not have been available otherwise. In allowing access, it allows questions (and answers), and contribution to knowledge.

It’s amazing what technology can do for the humanities and digital archiving is one great example among many.