7 Lessons Learned

One of the most essential elements of any DH project is reflection. It’s important to reflect on what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, because process is as important as product: it’s where the most important lessons are learned. Fellow DH practitioners can also learn as much, if not more, from your process reflections as from your finished product. So as we near the finish line, we’re taking some time to reflect on lessons learned along the way.


Lesson #1

In DH there is no expertise—only courage and resilience

Don’t wait for someone to come along with the expertise to show you how to do what you want to do or build what you want to build. What you’re envisioning hasn’t been invented yet. You have to jump in, unafraid of failure, knowing that whatever you’re attempting won’t work—at least at first. But you’ll persist, tinkering, troubleshooting, and Googling around for answers. Eventually you’ll get something to work, even if it’s not exactly what you set out to do. In DH you learn by doing, not prior to doing. As one graduate student put it, “You have to do the work to know how to do the work”; and, as another attests, “You have to expand your notion of work to include thinking, failing, playing around, and learning new skills.” 

Lesson #2

Set realistic limits

Without a clear roadmap or precedent for this work, we worked intuitively, which allowed us to be open to discovery, enabled the project to expand organically, and helped us to be more flexible about its parameters. Andrew Rikard’s expression, “It’s doable,” became an early motto that encouraged us to take risks and explore.

When the project grew to a cross-institutional collaboration, we had to modify the motto, reminding ourselves that just because “it’s doable” doesn’t mean we should pursue it. When you have a team of high achievers, “it’s doable” can fuel a relentless drive to succeed at a task, even if the time and effort needed to accomplish it isn’t commensurable with the benefits of the outcome. The project is going to grow bigger than you ever anticipated and take more time than you ever set aside, so it’s important to set limits. 

Lesson #3

Collaboration is key to DH projects

DH scholarship is necessarily collaborative, in part because no single humanist by training will have all the skills necessary to build a successful project. But when those necessary collaborations—the seeking of guidance and assistance and ideas from others—becomes a personal exchange, the nature and design of the project changes. Its most distinctive aspects may be those that result from the interpersonal exchanges, rather than from the idea or vision of an individual genius. 

DH collaboration is also distinctive because often the “help” does not exist prior to the emerging project, but is part of its making. The knowledge, expertise, and even tools may not exist yet. You learn as you go, making and adapting tools to answer your questions and achieve your goals. Our collaborations were strengthened by practices such as work retreats, periodic and mindful delegation of work, and sharing of external training. These practices made the collaboration sustainable and gave contributors a greater sense of knowing how to contribute. 

Collaboration will invariably lead to some friction and frustrations. But don’t forget that you encounter friction, frustration, and even despair when you work alone. The joy of a collaboration is that your partners can restore your faith in the project at those moments when you’re ready to throw in the towel. They’ll remind you why it’s valuable, why they joined in, and why it’s worth continuing. And they’ll produce work—new insights, new material—that make the project better and make you proud to be a part of it. 

Lesson #4

Identify & network with communities of practice

Participating in various DH workshops and institutes such as ILiADS (Institute for Liberal Arts Digital Scholarship) and DHSI (Digital Humanities Summer Institute) was critical to the project, not just for technology training, but also for a sense of community. Communities of practice provide vital support and knowledge for DH pioneers; instead of feeling like you are wandering in the wilderness without a map, you understand that you are part of a larger, collaborative exploration, full of like-minded researchers eager to share their knowledge and expertise.

Applying for an NEH Digital Humanities Advancement Grant also helped us connect with wider communities of practice, including the staff at NEH, the directors of our respective institutions’ Digital Libraries/Laboratories, scholars with expertise in modernist Digital Humanities, and later with other grant recipients. The grant writing process goes beyond seeking funds for your project; it helps you develop a plan and template, drawing upon the expertise and examples of others. NEH Senior Program Officer Jennifer Servanti’s suggestions on our draft proposal were crucial to our success. Serventi had a broader perspective and wider experience, asked good questions, and pointed out weaknesses and gaps in our plan. 

Lesson #5

Incorporate strategic planning throughout your project

A strategic plan is essential for setting manageable goals, identifying steps to achieve them, and matching those steps to a calendar. Our NEH Digital Humanities Advancement Grant served as our strategic plan, and the NEH guidelines, requirements, and advice made this document detailed, thorough, and practical. It became an essential reference point throughout our process. Perhaps most importantly, it required us to address the question: How will you know when your project is finished? 

While the NEH proposal was a valuable planning document for the project as a whole, the Faculty Success Program (FSP) from the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity taught me the importance of ongoing strategic planning for each semester, along with weekly planning. The FSP strategic planning method requires you to set goals, identify the steps to reach the goals, and match those steps to your calendar. 

Lesson #6

Choose a system for project communications & record-keeping

As vital as interpersonal exchanges are, communications will be more difficult than you think, not because they don’t take place, but because they occur in such abundance, over such long stretches of time. Even with a tool like Slack and with a process blog to record progress, it was hard to retain all the thinking, talking, decision making, and delegating. We thought Slack would be a good place to gather and record our decision-making process, but we didn’t use it consistently or its interface intuitive.

We’ve realized the importance of a decision log, as well as a place and system for storing project materials. We ended up reverting to email for communications and using Google folders and docs for project materials. Next time around, we would investigate open source project management tools or platforms that would enable us to keep a decision log that we could search and sort by date or topic. 

Communications aren’t just important within your team. You need to be connecting and networking with your desired audiences and networking with communities of practice throughout your project. It’s important to be dedicated and aggressive about promoting your site. Our hits skyrocketed when we ran the flash mob and had students orchestrating our social media campaign, but our faculty leaders couldn’t sustain that activity, since none of us are social media savvy. We would have benefited from a permanent team member dedicated to social media, as well as a detailed outreach plan, which should include not just social media, but also applying for awards, attending conferences, and contributing to DH forums and publications. 

Lesson #7

Give students freedom & peer review

Students (undergraduate and graduate) are capable of innovative research. In our project, they made crucial decisions, implemented them, and contributed original content. Even in an era of flipped classrooms, the dominant model of learning remains top-down and hierarchical, perhaps even more in the production of research than in the classroom. Students are invited to do interesting work, but often within a framework established by the professor. There’s good reason for this scaffolding, because the professor often has knowledge, training, and experience a student lacks. 

But what if you don’t know exactly where your research will go or how you will present it? In this regard, it helps to lack knowledge, training, and experience, because students may have knowledge, expertise, and experiences that faculty lack. We had to figure out ways to help students explore and implement tools we did not fully understand ourselves, collaborating with librarians and instructional technologists as intellectual partners. Our lack of expertise often enabled us to learn with and from our students.

Our students contributed original research projects to our website, included under a section titled “New Frequencies.” They researched, wrote, and edited biographies of figures in Mina Loy’s social and artistic networks. They culled data from these biographies to create a visualization of Loy’s social-artistic network. They created maps and timelines of Loy’s life and career, as well as 3D animations, lexicons, and e-commerce sites to promote engagement with her work. In short, their contributions to mina-loy.com were essential.

As much as they have to offer and teach us, students may also produce work that doesn’t meet scholarly standards of accuracy, citation, or accessibility. And once they’ve completed a course or graduated, they have little incentive to correct their work. How to strike that balance between giving them the freedom to explore, invent, and design, while also making sure they research thoroughly, represent accurately, cite adequately, or uphold accessibility standards—all within the constraints of a summer or semester? It’s important to build in oversight for projects that occur during the semester as part of a course. Have students sign release forms or agree to give editorial access, so that you can make changes—or have another set of students make changes—to their work before it is published. We also set up systems of peer review, in which undergraduates evaluated each other’s work, graduate students vetted and edited undergraduate work, and the faculty PIs reviewed and commented on graduate student projects. Creating systems of peer review and editing is crucial to upholding scholarly standards for student work.