DHSI and free agency

I’m on a plane from Seattle to Minneapolis and then to Boston, finishing up ten days of travel.  When we were taking off, Rainier Mountain just out my window was rising above the lower clouds, its head just touching the upper layer. Gorgeous and apt: the past week has given me new knowledge and a wider perspective.

I attended the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in Victoria!  This was made possible by the DHSI and by my dean, and I’m grateful to both.  The Institute’s ninth year was my first time attending, and it was an intense experience.  Something like 35 hours of instruction over five days; evening plenary talks and early-morning graduate student presentations for four of those.  I took the large project planning and management course with Lynne Siemens. It was even more exciting and useful than I’d expected it to be. Who would’ve thought I’d be into project management?  But bring industry-born ideas about cat herding resource wrangling into academe, and I’m there.  We talked about juggling (often too-little) money and time and people, getting folks to be as excited about your ideas as  you are, getting your head around a project in the first place.  We had guest speakers in almost every class and got to plan our own projects.  All of this delightfully low-tech: I’m bringing back large sheets of flip-chart paper with wild scribbles and post-it notes.  Now to get grant funding for this thing.  (Grant application is in, but we don’t find out for a couple more months.  If we don’t get funded, I imagine we’ll apply again.  In any case, the training will be applicable in other contexts, not least of them the everyday juggling of activities at work.)

The best part, of course, were the people.  I saw some old friends and acquaintances, and finally got to spend a bunch of time around Julie Meloni, who is moving to Victoria to work as a postdoc at UVic’s Electronic Textual Cultures Lab. (ETCL folks put on the Institute every summer—and let’s pause for a second to appreciate the work they do, and their success at it.)

Talking to Julie, and to Jentery Sayers, and Jon Bath, and Susan Brown, and the many other folk I met at UVic,  one thing is clear: networked technologies are finally at a stage where they can be reliably and cheaply used for long-distance collaboration in the digital humanities.  There’s no substitute for in-person interaction, but it’s also increasingly easy to work together over arbitrary distances, meeting in the same place every once in a while.  This is changing our work process.  It’s no longer just that we can email Word documents back and forth.  We can use combinations of text/audio/video chat, collaborative editing environments, remote file upload and syncing venues, online project management systems, even bibliography and research sharing systems to work on projects either synchronously or asynchronously, as circumstances permit, at times across many timezones.  All of these tools have been available for some time, but have been clunky or expensive or not easily interoperable.  The recent explosion of networked tools and services (some of them created by and for academics) is a perfect storm for academic collaboration.

At the beginning of the DHSI week I got pretty discouraged about my self-imposed geographic restriction to Boston.  All this activity swirling around me, watching people who have found inspiration in working with one another, felt like being on the outside looking in.  Which is pretty ridiculous, all things considered: nobody can do everything, and I have a job in Boston that’s at least nominally a digital humanities/digital libraries job.  But it does get lonely at BU sometimes.  There isn’t much DH activity either at the university or generally in New England. (Sure, Brown University is just an hour away, and THATCamp New England has just opened for applications.  But given that we’re in CollegeTownUSA land, there’s still woefully little DH work going on around here.  It’s ramping up, but slowly.)

Well, seems like there’s nothing like a little live interaction to get things going.  Seems I’m about to get involved in a couple of projects that will feed me in ways that will supplement the satisfaction I draw from current in-person work.  This is good both for me and for my workplace.  Information will flow through more channels, inspiration can be distributed. Perspective allows serendipity to do its unpredictable future thing.

I love Boston, and have good reasons to live where I live. This has meant passing on multiple opportunities to apply for jobs I’d no doubt enjoy. But I’ve placed a high priority on being near my people. It was a hard decision to make when I made it, but the rewards are constant and significant. And now, the trade-off doesn’t seem as big as it did even only three years ago.

Being a free agent in the age of networked communication is pretty exciting.

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