“[T]he gooey layer in the middle”: A Graduate Student Perspective on Building Inter- and Intra-Institutional DH Alliances

This post is part of an ongoing Digital Scholarship Ontario series which highlights the scholarship and teaching experiences of Ontario’s digital scholars.

By Emily C. Murphy

When I started my doctoral work at Queen’s University, I knew that I had chosen a university that had not yet built a robust DH infrastructure. DH projects existed, but, with a few notable exceptions outside of my department, they were mostly individual projects that were not able to hire teams of research assistants. I had been involved in some way—whether as a research assistant, an independent researcher, or simply as a student at DH training institutes—in DH work since my undergraduate studies. So I thought, I can make an impact here; I can find people who are already interested and build a community.

Of course, the reality was more complex. I found lots of good will, and plenty of resistance. What I found most challenging, however, was not finding potential allies. In fact, I found that some of the most ardent supporters of DH on campus, generous with both their energy and their material support, were staff at Queen’s University Library and Special Collections, a group of people who I expected to have the least to gain from the promotion of DH research at the university. I have found support at the upper administrative level. And above all I am lucky to collaborate and co-conspire with a small-but-dedicated group of teachers, librarians, and researchers who are as deeply invested in DH research and community as I am. DH@Q, as we tentatively call ourselves, works specifically because of the willingness of its members to learn from each other and to draw upon the unique skills and experiences of multiple subject positions in the university hierarchy.

But by far my greatest challenge was to find support where I most hoped to find alliances: among faculty and my fellow graduate students. At times, I felt as though I was trying to navigate what Margaret Atwood might call “the gooey layer in the middle” (The Edible Woman)—neither the upper crust of administration, nor the vital lower crust of material and physical infrastructure, but the complex and often obscure relationships amongst researchers, students, discrete funding bodies, and their histories of attempting to support or forge a DH research community themselves, of working against it, or of encountering it with indifference.

So, what have I learned about the “gooey layer in the middle”? Chiefly, I learned that the values that DH prides itself on—collaboration, generosity, curiosity, and breakdowns of hierarchies for example—often occur despite the lack of two specific resources that structure the relationships in this layer: time and knowledge.

Graduate students and the precariat are used to hearing about the increasing pressures of the job market. The time crunch that comes along with increased publishing expectations, shortened time-to-completion, and the increasing reliance on graduate and precarious labour in teaching roles are palpable pressures in an already strained graduate education system. But time is a precious resource for tenured faculty as well. DH values like collaboration are difficult to put into practice because finding and nurturing collaborative relationships is time consuming.

Knowledge of the possibilities for DH research, and the more specific knowledge of how to harness DH methodologies for particular research questions, are a related barrier to DH community building. DH values like curiosity and experimentation construct an ideal DHer as someone with the will to gain new kinds of knowledges, whether or not they lead to research outcomes. But gaining that knowledge likewise takes time. We organized workshops, speakers series, and unconferences to attempt to provide the knowledge that would-be allies and collaborators asked for, but it was difficult for those potential allies to attend. The relationship between knowledge and time, then, is a chicken and egg problem.

So, how did we navigate this? All I can do is point to a handful of things that I’ve learned that help me to think about the work of creating community, and that help me to learn from the people around me who make up that community.

1. Knowing who to ask and what to ask for is knowledge, too. When I look back at the first two years of my time at Queen’s, I feel as though it took me the entirety of that time to figure out who and where my allies might be. The infrastructure of a university is obscure and often confusing, and it requires dedicated energy to learn. What knowledge of people and resources I have gained pales in comparison to the institutional knowledge of my collaborators who are faculty, librarians, and recent graduates. By listening to their insights and observing their instincts about how to build DH infrastructure, I am able to value what knowledge I do have and to perceive where I might build more.

2. People under a time crunch need to choose how to spend their time. Despite the chicken and egg problem, I have found that people are still willing to chip in if they can perceive tangible benefits to their involvement. Under the pressures that people at all levels of the university feel, I have found one question to be a particularly valuable one to ask potential collaborators: “What kind of involvement will benefit you?” Instead of asking people to volunteer their time in exchange for the vague promise of a line on a CV or more experience in university service, I have found it more fruitful to find ways for people to name the terms of their involvement and to find ways to benefit themselves as well as others. In fact, insofar as community building is care work, those doing that care work deserve to be rewarded for it in a way that is beneficial. For instance, a peer who wanted more exposure wished to apply for a HASTAC scholarship. As a group, DH@Q integrated HASTAC scholarship applications into our mentoring structure, increasing the benefits to the peer who originally proposed the idea by strengthening the presence of Queen’s researchers in DH outlets.

3. Specific conversations get tangible results. DH@Q has hosted speakers series and workshops that have showcased excellent scholarship and prompted vibrant and curious feedback. But the events that produced the most tangible outcomes were events that tried to solve a specific problem. At one particular session at THATCamp DH@Q 2013, session attendees brainstormed specific DH-related requests from an on-going library renovation project. Their recommendations as a group were submitted to a public survey, and some of their recommendations have been integrated into the strategic plan for the library.

These have been the major lessons I’ve learned in my time at Queen’s University. And I don’t think they’re exclusive to my university. In fact, in my new role as President of the Graduate Caucus of Digital Scholarship Ontario, these lessons will be invaluable. Cross-institutional conversations about representation, the profession, non-academic professions, skills, resources, research, and teaching will be the cornerstones of the Graduate Caucus. I hope to see it grow to make a meaningful impact on how graduate students of digital studies in Ontario move through their programs, develop as professionals, and move into diverse professional fields.

As I continue my term as President, I keep the lessons I learned at Queen’s in mind. I wish to build and preserve knowledge of the complex institutional relationships across Ontario. I wish to empower Caucus members to choose how to spend their time in ways they find beneficial. And I wish to accomplish tangible outcomes that speak to the needs of the community of graduate digital scholars in Ontario.

Emily is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in English at Queen’s University. She serves as the President of the Graduate Caucus of Digital Scholarship Ontario. Her dissertation research focuses on representations of female celebrity and mental illness in the modernist period. Within DH, she is interested in critical conceptions of open-access publishing, networked knowledge, and digital pedagogy.

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