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For Beginners, What Makes a Good DH project?

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Being relatively new to the Digital Humanities, I’ve been wondering – how will my project be evaluated when it is finished? What should I keep in mind before starting a new DH research project? Some of these notes maybe applicable broadly, beyond my own background in contemporary English Literature.

What makes a good DH project?

a) Framing of the research question

Asking a good research question is central to a DH project, as it is to traditional research. This means your DH project’s intellectual rigor should not be obscured or conflated with the use of sophisticated research tools. For example, if I’m conducting research using ArcGIS (the geographical analysis software), how do I go beyond mapping a course of events impressively? What new ways of interpreting the subject matter am I suggesting to a scholarly audience?

So, defining the purpose of your research is an important first step. But the leading purpose of the research should fit not just the subject matter, but also the kind of digital resources at your disposal. If you are new to DH like me, it may be worthwhile to take stock of what software, hardware and data will be available as you embark on your project.

b) Clearly knowing your project’s contribution to your field of research

In DH research, clearly defining the intellectual work of your project seems to be more important that in traditional forms of scholarship. Your research project may analyze a new set of texts (or a new set of “raw data”). Or, your project may suggest a new way of conducting research on an existing set of texts or data. In any case, you should keep notes on what your project’s intellectual contribution is.

Very often, your methodology for a DH project is a mix of disciplinary methodology (say, historical analysis of a text) and digital methodology (say, spatial analysis using ArcGIS). You may eventually determine the right “mix” for your project by drawing from across disciplines or improvising new methods as you go.

c) Highlighting the gains made by your research project

DH practitioners value a very self-conscious style of scholarship that highlights the amount of intellectual work done by a project – this helps to make a project’s evaluation easier and fairer. The criteria for evaluating DH projects at institutions are evolving, and they may not be uniform across the board. Unlike traditional scholarship, DH work involves highlighting a research project’s gains clearly, often to an audience from another academic field. Clearly mention if your work yields new concepts, new methodology, or new interpretations of old texts/data.

Quantifying the intellectual work of a DH project is also tricky – some projects require more work than others to find the relevant data and process it into a usable research object. Some projects require the researcher to build collaborative networks by working closely with support staff or students, often from scratch.

d) Presenting the results

Having the end product in mind is paramount for any DH research, especially if you are new to the field. You may have to anticipate the form that the result of your research takes. Will it be available online? Will it be interactive? Will users have an index or a search function? Will you be able to tweak it after two years? Will it be hosted by your university or a public library? Can you take it with you if you move to another institution?

Presenting your results in a user-friendly manner is also an important goal. You may want to impress with your technical skills, but you also don’t want to lose the audience with too much jargon.

As I said earlier, the parameters for evaluating DH projects are not uniform across the board. They are context-specific, still-evolving, and confusing. Here is my summary of three useful online guides on how DH research should be evaluated.

What academic practitioners are saying about evaluating DH projects:

MLA Guidelines for Evaluating Digital Scholarship:

The MLA exhorts DH scholars to carefully document the extent of their contribution. This way, new kinds of work – such as collecting data, developing methodology, and collaborating with specialists – maybe recognized by a tenure committee or by the audience.

Secondly, the MLA asks DH scholars to “explain their work” in the project itself, so that the intellectual rigor of the work maybe easily grasped. This work of explanation may focus on a project’s theoretical/methodological grounding, or the medium of presentation, such a Google Maps-based webpage.

AHA Guidelines for Evaluating Digital Scholarship:

The AHA emphasizes that a DH project should be evaluated in light of the new methodological approaches it develops. Evaluators should also note the collaborative or networked nature of a project. Further, the AHA stresses that a project should be evaluated in its own specific medium, rather than by making it analogous to print scholarship, say by printing it out on paper.

Notes from NINES/NEH Summer Institute:

The NINES/NEH Summer Institute advises that a good project should be clear as to who the intended audience is. Which academic sub-field are the project's readers from, and what types of disciplinary knowledge can the project author take for granted? Secondly, a digital scholarship (DS) project should include a plan for its sustainability and preservation, including how it may be improved upon in the near future, and which institution will host the work online in the long run.

Photo Coutesy: Ron Scheffler for McMaster University Library

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