Blog Post

A Conversation with Peggy McCracken, Director of the University of Michigan's Humanities Collaboratory

A Conversation with Peggy McCracken, Director of the University of Michigan's Humanities Collaboratory

What do you need to take over the world for humanities collaboration? TIME and SPACE. And an openness to innovation and creativity. I sat down with Dr. Peggy McCracken, director of the new Humanities Collaboratory initiative at the University of Michigan, to find out a little more about the design and goals of the project. Follow the links to find out more about the program, and you can listen to the interview, or read the transcript below.



So tell me a little about you.

So I am a Medievalist. I work in French Literature, and I’m appointed here in French, Women’s Studies and Comp Lit. And, I’m not sure what else to say!

That’s okay! My first question is, or what I was thinking is, I’ve read, or I went to the Humanities Collaboratory website, and I heard the piece on Michigan Radio, and I’ll provide links to that for the people who read on the HASTAC blog, so one of the questions I had for you is: How did you come to be associated with the Humanities Collaboratory?

Well, I have been involved in some administrative positions at Rackham, and in Romance Languages, and so, Sara Blair, who is Vice–Provost for Academic Affairs and a Humanist, joined the Provost’s office, and she wanted to—on the Provost’s behalf—put together a major funding project in the Humanities because there’s lots of funding for lots of other things. Collaboration is happening on our campus in a lot of places, and Humanities scholars are involved in some of those collaborations, but there hasn’t been any funding for purely Humanities collaborative work, and so Sara wanted to see if we could put together something like that, so I joined a small working group. We did a lot of explorations, looking at what other people were doing, trying to figure out how that might look at Michigan. So that was my initial involvement, and then once we had it together, it was like, ‘ooh, I’d like to coordinate that!’ So I’m doing that.

Had you been involved in Humanities collaborative projects before, something that gave you an interest in this particular…

I have not been involved in the scale of collaboration that we are hoping to fund. I’ve co–written with colleagues; I’ve co–written a few books with colleagues, and I really enjoyed that process. And you know even in that small, relatively small, way of collaborating with other people in rather focused ways—because a book has a pretty clear focus when you start it—even there, I realized both the immense pleasures of collaborating with other people and just thinking outside of the ways that I normally think, having to re–situate myself in relation to the stuff we’re doing. And also the frustrations because sometimes it’s hard to work with other people. So one of the things we are most hoping to do is: when we were doing research on collaborative projects, we realized that there have been a lot of collaborative Humanities projects in various places in the US, and of course in Europe as well, but that’s a little bit different model from what we were thinking about, but there aren’t a lot of traces as to what’s happened. So one of the things we are really hoping to be able to do is to put together a log or a compilation—I’m not quite sure what form it would take—but, just to leave our experiences as a sort of, maybe not a guide—but maybe a guide!—for people who might want to put together collaborative projects in the Humanities in the future.

Well, and that’s fascinating to think about documenting the process…


Because the process is so important, and as a person interested in writing, the teaching of writing, the process is so important. And you’re right, it does become invisible or gets erased.

Yeah, it’s like ‘we did it; it was successful or wasn’t successful,’ but how people worked together, how they negotiated–not necessarily conflict, but just, you know, different aspirations for the project. One of the things we are most interested in is what the “add–on” is of collaboration. I mean, what does collaboration make possible, not just in terms of scope, but in terms of research questions. So not just pulling together your research on this, your research on that, my research on this similar topic and seeing what they look like together, but how do we sit around a table, talk about our research and shape research questions.

Yeah, and I heard that in your public radio piece, too. It’s about, sort of, you can ask different kinds of questions. There are always going to be questions that are appropriate for the single scholar who is dedicated to answering their driving question, but you can maybe get at different kinds of questions when you work in a collaborative space.


That’s really great. Can you tell me— well, I guess maybe the next connected question might be—I’m thinking about this desire for public scholarship, which seems to be really relevant and important to questions of how the Humanities make visible their relevance to the public sphere, because I think they are relevant already, and people in the Humanities who work that way know that, but that relevance seems to get lost, maybe in the erasure of the process, or maybe in the limited scope of the audience. So, can you tell me a little bit more about how the Humanities Collaboratory is thinking about making scholarship public?

Yeah. So one of the requirements for all the projects we’ll fund is that they have to address multiple audiences using different media. So we haven’t made it a specific requirement that people have to address the general public, though we do have the requirement that they have to go beyond their own specialized audience. So for most people that does mean some sort of public–facing publication of their work, and we feel that’s important first of all, well, for the very reason you suggest—to reach beyond our specialist conversations into a different kind of conversation about the work we do, which would in turn force us to think about—not the precise relevance of our work to specific policy problems, I mean maybe that would be true—but just why it’s important to think about the Humanities, what it does for us as individuals, as groups of people, as citizens if you want to use that language, but just to be able to push people to turn in new directions when talking about their scholarship. So we’re hoping that there will be some pretty effective public displays. It could be a performance, it could be a concert, or an exhibit. A lot of those things.

Alright. You also mentioned that this might afford a new model for training graduate students, and as a graduate student, I’m certainly interested in hearing more about that. So what are your thoughts?

Well, we’re deeply interested in what kinds of graduate training—so another requirement of our projects is that they have to be multi–generational, so they have to involve graduate students. Some will involve undergraduate students, but we are particularly interested, as you’re saying, in how they’ll involve graduate students. And the projects, we’re very scrupulous about this, they have to involve graduate students as research partners, not research assistants. So not photocopiers (You know everybody’s got to do the photocopying!), but people who are helping to shape the questions of the project. And, I mean, if we think that one of the futures for Humanities research is collaborative research, why wouldn’t we be involving our graduate students in that kind of research from the get–go. You know there are lots of institutional, or there are lots of perceived institutional barriers to collaborative work, and we’ve heard this from assistant professors, too, who are thinking about collaborative projects, that they’re a little bit worried about doing anything collaborative until they’ve got tenure. But you know our colleagues in the social sciences and the natural sciences are always evaluating collaborative work. So if we are able to have a record of people doing work, if we could possibly, for the University of Michigan, devise some guidelines for evaluating collaborative work. I mean drawing on what people have done at other institutions, drawing on what our colleagues in social sciences and natural sciences do to evaluate collaborative work, we hope to bring collaborative work into mainstream–what we think of as mainstream, I guess, research– into what counts for professional advancement. So I’m sidetracked onto tenure and promotion, but I think that those models for tenure and promotion also affect us when we think about what graduate students should be doing for their dissertation or their dissertation–like work, for their culminating project in a graduate program. So why wouldn’t you co–write a dissertation? Or why wouldn’t you collaborate with an advisor to do your part of a broader, you know, to do two jointly, or two connected projects. I don’t have specific ideas about how that would work, but it would just be so much more fun! To be more tightly, more intellectually connected in a tight way to somebody while you’re doing scholarly work. There are great pleasures in that, and why should you have to wait until you have tenure to get them?

Absolutely. And I’ve been part of many of those conversations, sitting in on special interest groups at CCCC and at Computers & Writing, and at the Digital Humanities Institute, about how do you make sure people get credit for the collaborative work that they’re doing. And as a contributor to a collaborative webtext, I now that there’s a lot of back–end work, there’s a lot of visualizing work, so there’s a lot of different kinds of work that go into it that we haven’t quite sorted out how to make sure people get the kind of credit that’s deserved there.

And, actually, we don’t even think about those questions. We might say—I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say like, ‘Okay, we’ll do this project and it’ll be half you and half me,’ but not thinking about—especially if it’s a digital project—who’s doing the, you know, what kinds of work go into it. So, I’m learning a lot about the kinds of expertise that are necessary to do some of the projects that people are describing to us as potential projects for us to fund. And the amount of thought, research, investigation, that needs to go into thinking about digital publication. So you know this, but it’s new to me. And, you know, people are saying ‘We’ll build a website.’ It’s like, well: Who’s going to host it? Where are you going to put it? How long do you want to have access to it? I mean, these are not the kinds of things we naturally think about, right? Who’s going to design it? You know, it’s like, ‘I’ll just put it up!’ You know these are really complex projects that deserve recognition for their complexity and for their multi–authored, multi–created, or multi– many–creatored, nature, and we do think that many of the projects in the Collaboratory are going to be digital projects. It’s just a natural way to think about collaboration, so we are trying to gather tools for thinking ahead of time about who gets credit for what. And we do have some models because there are humanities, some fields, like Archeology, routinely do collaborative research, and they have models for laying out the credit—‘you’ll do this. You’ll get credit for that’ So we’re trying to draw on some of those, but expand them to think more carefully about digital productions and digital scholarship.

Cool. And the last thing I want to ask you, well it might be in two parts, one is the infrastructures that you’re talking about for supporting this kind of work, and what goes into anticipating or devising or planning those infrastructures?

It’s a great question! We’re totally doing it on the fly! So one of the things we wanted to do was pay people for their time. So one of the things that we will fund is, we can’t buy a lot of people out of teaching, but we will buy the PI for our projects out of one course per year, and everybody else will get summer funding. And I say that because we felt that there’s a lot of humanities funding initiatives that don’t fund people’s time in the way that scientists use grants to fund their time. So we wanted to try to create something that would allow that, at lest on a small scale. We have a space. It’s in the graduate library, we have a temporary space right now. And we will be moving, we expect, to a more permanent, bigger space there, but—What do we put in it? And we don’t know!

That was my related question: I’ve been by the space in the Hatcher Graduate library, with the sign, and like I wonder, “coming soon!” When!?!

We are going to put in one workstation for now that will allow people to work around a table with a screen, so they can project onto the screen from their computers. That is our initial baseline, and we will be able to add tools to that. So we’ve just funded—we’ve given seed money to five projects—so in the summer, five groups will be developing their proposals further, and they are our guinea pigs. So they will help us figure out what they need to work together. And so we’re hoping that that will help us figure out what kind of tools we need in the collaboratory space in itself, what we need to provide for people to work together effectively because we want people to use the space for meetings, and we want to have what they need there. That said, though, one of the great advantages to us of being in the library is that we have easy access to all the resources that are there, which are not just physical but particularly human. So our library is full of people who can help our colleagues think about research tools, research publication, technical support, digital methods, all kinds of methods. So we’re really excited about being over there. And one of the things we’ll be trying to figure out is what we need in our space and what people can get in other spaces. But we do want to have a space where people can come together, sit around a table, and work effectively, and we are, as I say, trying to figure out what that would involve, and we’ll be eager for advice.

Well, and I think, what I like about that is just the, really, responsiveness of the model. People come with ideas. They’ve got these great ideas about representations and inequalities in digital spaces. I read through some of the project proposal titles—they look fascinating—and, so thinking about what scholars need to accomplish those, to enact those visions is driving the building of the project, of the lab.

That’s right. And it’ll be a space for our teams to work. We hope that our teams are going to be really active and fill it up all the time, but we might also be able to host other people who want to build a team, to work together on collaborative work. We’re just not sure how big our space will be yet, but our goal is to take over the world for collaborative Humanities research!

That’s an excellent goal! Alright! Is there anything else you’d like to say about the Humanities Collaboratory, or anything you want to add?

Well, you know the one thing I would say is that when we were building this project, we thought we would have to convert people. We thought we would have to do a lot of proselytizing, you know, here’s how great collaborative work could be in the humanities, but, you know, once we announced the project, people just came out of the woodwork. I mean, there’s a lot of pent–up desire, it seems, for structure, for funding. And people have projects they want to do, and it was great, it was really great. So that was one of the really, for me, surprising and really happy things that we learned.

Excellent. Thank you so much for your time!

My pleasure.


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