Collaboration: Breaking Down Center Walls

We all know that graduate students working in Digital Humanities Centers have the unique experience to work on a variety of projects and enhance technical and development skills. We have the chance to add lines to our CVs that can improve our chances of getting both academic and non-academic jobs, and get to see our names on the about pages of apps and websites. What I haven’t really seen in discussions about grad students in Centers is a conversation regarding the more immediate academic and social benefits–and challenges–that go along with participating in and working on-site at these Centers. We should also consider talking about how we can connect and collaborate with other grad students in similar situations.

There’s definitely something to be said about being able to work in an environment that naturally enhances one’s awareness of and involvement in current events and conversations within a field. Being physically present means that we get to hear and contribute to verbal conversations within the center concerning the state of the field, as well as current controversies and announcements about new applications or tools. We also have the opportunity to contribute to project blogs and be a part of how new tools and projects are represented and used by the larger community. This immersion into the currents of the DH field requires that we reflect on our place in the field – both as graduate students and future professionals – and consider how we want to join in and represent ourselves and our research.

Here at RRCHNM, the problems surrounding doing and representing research using digital tools are very present in the minds of graduate students and faculty. While not all of us are interested in putting together digital dissertations or using tools prominently in the construction and presentation of our research, those of us who are pay close attention to how questions of digital publication and interactive research are addressed, both by those inside the DH community and those outside. And while we watch this conversation, we have the unique opportunity to work in places where faculty and staff support our efforts to learn new tools and build our methods for working with historical data. Here, we can look to the PressForward project for experimental methods in non-traditional publication, and we can look to sites, apps, and tools developed in our Research, Education, and Public Projects divisions for new ways to present and interact with historical content.

But grad students need to start thinking about how to both enhance and take advantage of our place in the developing DH community. Our contributions to service projects and educational/research tools are recognized by others working on digital projects, but not always by the larger academic community. As professional academics in the field fight for the recognition of digital history and digital humanities projects by tenure committees and professional organizations, graduate students can, I think, do more than wait and watch for change to come.

Building off of Spencer’s discussion about internal and external collaboration, I argue that we should take advantage of the opportunity to build connections with other graduate students in our position. We should be building networks among these Centers, connecting and collaborating on research and joining the ongoing conversations we see happening around us. Grad students at CHNM have very little contact with Praxis Fellows and GRAs at ScholarsLab at UVA, nor do we seem to have connections to grads at MITH or Nebraska or Northeastern.

While we are (as RRCHNM DH Fellows), admittedly very new to the Center environment, we think we need to create a graduate student voice in DH and encourage collaborative work – including, perhaps, visits to other campuses and online collaboration on blog posts, articles, and bigger projects. There is an interesting conversation happening in publications and blog posts about encouraging historians to publish collaboratively, spreading out the burden of research and project construction and adding additional voices to historical arguments.

Maybe it’s time for us to start crossing the boundaries between Centers and develop examples for those who will come after us. We won’t be in this unique position forever. Assistantships and fellowships are limited by time and funding, and entering the professional academic field adds a new layer of complication to the kind of communication and networking building we’d like to encourage. Meeting up once a year at a conference or ThatCamp isn’t enough. Let’s take advantage of the free tools and apps available for collaboration and conversation and start talking to each other.

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