Strangely enough, the buzzword for me around my work these days seems to be collaboration. I say “strange” because I’m currently writing a humanities dissertation, and that’s hardly a group-work kind of affair. And it’s true, the writing itself will always be done in isolation. I don’t think there’s any way to get around it, fortunately or unfortunately. In order for a dissertation to count towards the PhD, it has to be the sole work of the candidate. One of my advisors recently told me of a case where several UCLA social sciences doctorates were revoked because one or more chapters of the dissertation were found to have been co-authored. Ouch.
The other facets of my work, however, have taken a decidedly collaborative turn. Over the past month, I have joined forces with data visualization specialist Noah Iliinsky of Complex Diagrams and GIS guru Stanislav Parfenov (MA Urban Planning, UCLA ‘08). Both of these guys have been working with me on my Litmap project to create an interface that clearly and intuitively presents the data points and the relationships between them.
(Incidentally, the Litmap tool is an integral part of my dissertation — I’m using it in conjunction with traditional techniques to close read literature. But because of the current limitations on dissertations, the project itself doesn’t count as official work towards degree. I will probably end up including a number of black-and-white images of it in my dissertation manuscript).
At the first meeting of the 2008-09 UCLA Mellon Seminar, “What is(n’t) Digital Humanities?” on October 8, we talked extensively about digital humanities work as being collaborative by nature. Jeffrey Schnapp spoke at length about the way in which interdisciplinary centers like the Stanford Humanities Lab, which he founded in 1980, are modeled on the scientific laboratory model. We discussed the inherent challenges - especially for humanities academics - of developing, creating, and maintaining complex new media applications.
We in the humanities are trained to produce work in isolation, like cloistered monks. I noted that in the digital humanities environment, we suddenly need to become skilled project managers, with some understanding of technology, what it means for a group project to be successful, and what it takes to get there. Ideally, you are the “translator” between the technical and non-technical members of your development group. It requires a very specialized set of skills and knowledge, even to know what you’re looking for in your team.
After the meeting, I had an interesting discussion with some fellow Comp Lit grad students who are new to the digital humanities. They wondered why the science lab is the default model for group work. What about feminist models of collaboration, which have been under development in the humanities for decades? We could probably also learn a lot from studies out there on what makes for positive and productive work culture environments, particularly in IT.
I will be traveling to San Francisco in late December to sit on a panel at the MLA Convention called “Imagining Collaboration in the Humanities.” In spite of the titular “imagining,” I’ll be talking about my real-life experiences and observations. It’ll be interesting to see what the discussion is like.
And now, back to the cloister.