Digital Humanities Summer Institute 2013

Crossposted from my own site. Delayed for no particular reason.

A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune to be able to attend the 2013 edition of the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in at the University of Victoria, in Victoria, British Columbia (w00t! international travel!) and figured I owe the reading public a report.

First of all, this certainly feels like a big event. Once upon a time it wasn’t that many people (the site archive doesn’t list participants until 2004, but we can see that the 2001 edition had 2 courses), but it has grown tremendously over the years, hitting 22 courses and nearly 500 people here in 2013. And that’s not taking into account the three events put on by the institute but not in the summer. Consequently, while I can understand people talking about making lifelong friends at the event, I think these days that’s harder unless you return over multiple years. It was big enough that I didn’t feel bad skipping some of the planned events in order to go out for lunch or just let my brain rest a bit.

Second, I highly encourage anyone considering attending to see whether they can score a seat in Jennifer Guiliano’s course on “Issues in Large Project Planning and Management”. This was what I took, and it may have changed my work life. It would be fair to say that I am a convert to project management thinking and practice, though the former may be more important than the latter. Some of the more important lessons from the course for me:

Plan all the things
I’ve already seen benefits from approaching my work this way. Oddly enough, I had started it a little bit before I left for DHSI, so perhaps I was learning in advance. But in any case, my calendar software these days is always filled, so I know what I should be working on at any time of any day and I have a way of completing a time tracking document at the end of the week. Further, it has meant that I’ve been able to hear requests for projects and been able to articulate why I don’t have time to take them on right now. Finally, it helps guard against both what came to be called in our course Bright Shiny Object syndrome as well as Brush Fire Proliferation; I’m managing to find a way to see something interesting and make a time — later — to investigate. What’s still a problem with planning is encountering something that seems particularly strongly to need immediate attention.
Document all the things
I haven’t organized this far yet, except in very small ways such as leaving meetings with a list of action items, but I know from dealing with difficult project partners that this is going to come in handy if I manage to do it. By the same token, this is one area in which the course flirted with talking about principles without sufficient regard for practice. That is, in many ways simply documenting the conversations, agreements, expectations is fairly easy. The difficult part is having the conversations, having the discussions about whether the documenter remembered the conversations accurately, or having the conversation when a project partner insists that the landscape has shifed.
Get everyone on the bus or get them off the bus
My interpretation/extrapolation/summation of a good part of the course is that it is vitally important to the success of a project (and by extension to the individual people working on the project) to get everyone’s agreement on the project structure. That is, everyone needs to commit articulately to, for instance, the products (primary and secondary), the milestones, the credits, the authority structure. This last is particularly difficult when the project manager is hierarchically below other key people on or affiliated with the project such as the PI or a key stakeholder.

We had some very good discussions about the particular projects people brought to the institute, and equally good discussions about issues of power, labor valuation, and soft influence. I was surprised how many people in the room were, like I am, more often than not having to manage a project on which they are not the formal Project Manager or on which they are officially the PM but on which there is a PI who outranks them in other parts of their world.

Victoria itself, and UVic as well, is beautiful. The weather was fabulous, if a little warmer than we expected. I was there with my family, so this was a pleasant surprise. DHSI is very warm and welcoming despite its size, and may even have hit the inflection point, when the warmth and welcome are no longer truly appropriate for the size of the gathering. I don’t mean to suggest that an institute should be cold and efficient, but the conference described by the organizers may no longer be possible as a result of the size and necessarily concomitant reduction in how many people can meet others.

It seemed that there was fairly good representation from many strands of DH and many models of doing DH in a higher-ed institution, but there were two lacks: small institutions and people of color. I would like to see DHSI put some effort into getting more people to Victoria who can speak from these positions. In particular, I’d like to see representation among the organizers of these positions, but I must also say I don’t know Canadian institutions well enough to know what’s a small school (though I do know to some extent what’s a big school).

Next year I’d like to consider going back, but due to the cost and effort, I might be better off looking into attending the Digital Humanities Winter Institute at MITH instead [Ed. -- now called HILT.]. My efforts toward DHSI will probably be directed toward getting others here to attend and seeing how/whether ITG can help support them in that.

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