Remarks to VICULA on DH

The following is a draft of remarks I gave to a meeting of VICULA (Virginia Independent College and University Library Association) today at its meeting at Washington and Lee. I don’t read my talks directly from a script, so what I actually said varies but this represents the heart of it.

I’m going to give an overview of our digital humanities and some of the issues we’re facing. And my colleagues are going to go into more specifics about the aspects that they are working on.

First, about that term digital humanities: DH. It’s a problematic term in an undergraduate college. It’s very hard to define and is more often associated with graduate education and faculty research. I do like this definition: DH is a set of “convergent practices that explore a universe in which print is no longer the primary medium in which knowledge is produced and disseminated” (Burdick et al. 2012, 122) [pdf] But what does that really mean in practice? What does it mean for undergraduate teaching and learning?

Many liberal arts colleges have adopted different terms, such as the digital liberal arts or digital studies. DH is more than the humanities. These techniques can apply to many disciplines. There’s really little distinction between DH and digital scholarship. My advice is not to focus too much on trying to define the term because that can lead to a lot of non-productive conversations as you pull in people from different disciplines.

At W&L we have a very practical reason for using DH: the dean of our college. She likes the term DH. She started the conversation here about DH about 3 years ago and she is the champion for our DH initiatives. So, here at W&L the term DH has developed a certain brand, a recognition, that works here. I encourage you to find the term that works at your institution. But spend more time talking about what you do and not about a definition.

We do have a lot of momentum going about DH. If you’re interested in the background, a group of us wrote a case study. I’m going to talk about where we are now. Collaboration is the key to everything we’re doing. And we’re very fortunate in having strong leadership, not only from our dean but also our faculty. Again, the case study describes how our DH activities are organized.

As we were writing that case study, we started examining what many other liberal arts colleges were doing with DH. And we noticed that many of the colleges had large grants from the Mellon Foundation. And we started wondering: how can we get some of that funding? So one day I picked up the phone and called the grants officer in our development office. We are very fortunate in that we have a wonderful grants officer. And he told me the process for applying for a Mellon grant.

I want to talk about this process a  bit since some of you might be interested in pursuing this funding source. The Mellon Foundation has an unusual process. It does not accept unsolicited applications but there is a process. Even though Mellon has a reputation for being somewhat exclusive, there are clear indicators that Mellon is expanding the range of institutions that they fund. And it’s important to remember that Mellon is a humanities foundation. The process is simple. Your provost or president simply sends a brief email describing the concept to the appropriate program officer at Mellon.

We were shocked that Mellon replied that day, within hours, that they were interested and wanted to see a draft proposal. We then had a conference call with the program officer: on the call was our provost, the two faculty most involved in DH, myself, and our grants officer. We got clarification as to what Mellon liked and did not like. They are very clear in what they do and do not want to see. So we pulled together a draft, about 5 pages, and submitted that. We were even more surprised that Mellon responded again the same day saying that they would fund the project. Of course, that was a tentative approval. It still had to be approved by the board of Mellon.

I encourage you not to be shy about approaching Mellon but the contact, at least for the liberal arts program, should come from the college’s senior administration. Many people are aware that research libraries often get significant Mellon funding for digital library and digital scholarship initiatives. But that is through a separate process, a different program officer at Mellon. So it’s important to make sure what division of Mellon you are targeting. And Mellon is also very interested in collaborative endeavors and multi-institutions initiatives.

If your institution has not received Mellon funding before, you probably will want to start with a small concept, perhaps a planning grant. In our initial contact, we did not specify a dollar amount. Mellon will tell you the amount that they will fund.

So what are we doing? Our grant proposal is titled DH Studio: a pedagogical innovation. We wanted to anchor our initiative around the curriculum, particularly a series of one credit courses in DH that serve as labs for humanities courses. Mackenzie Brooks will speak more about the DH Studio courses.

Our grant is divided into multiple areas: staffing for the library to support DH studio, incentive grants to faculty, summer research grants, professional development, a speaker series, student workers, and funding to send students to conferences. The about page of our DH website has more details on these initiatives.

So everything looks really great. We have the senior administration fully behind DH, great leadership from the faculty, very positive buzz among the faculty, the library is excited about DH, and we have a large grant. What could go wrong? One very important thing: lack of student interest.

We thought students would be excited to learn this stuff. But our students are very practical, very career oriented. They could not make the connection between DH and their careers. Part of the problem is that term DH. It means nothing to students.

And building interest among students is a major focus of our initiative this year. [At this point in the talk, I spoke about some our curricular activites. A focus was on the courses we’re teaching and the enrollment issues we encountered. I’m going to be doing an upcoming talk at DLF on the specifics of that issue. I’ll post those comments when they’re available.]