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My Experience as a Digital Scholar: Benefits, Challenges and the Centre for Digital & Print Cultures

My Experience as a Digital Scholar: Benefits, Challenges and the Centre for Digital & Print Cultures

This past Monday, I had a chance to speak to the Senate Library Committee about my project, digital scholarship, and the Centre for Digital and Print Cultures—part of a new initiative to promote digital scholarship on campus. I enjoyed the experience because it's always nice to talk to people and get genuinely enthusiastic comments and suggestions in return. But it also prompted me to think about the bigger picture of digital scholarship and Digital Humanities at Queen's (and as an undergraduate) and where my experiences fit in. I've decided to summarize a few of the major issues that came up during the meeting and expand on my answers here.



What I learned at the Digital Humanities Field School

There's a lot I could talk about here, but two things in particular stuck with me. They didn't have to do with particular skills (although learning those was important too). They had to do with challenging two assumptions that made me reflect on I thought about research and the way I thought about how I interact with digital media.

The first assumption is that digital representations are somehow neutral or transparent when they aren't. They are arguments that reveal what we value in what we choose to represent and how we represent it. They also carry implications in the way they encourage the user to interact with them. This is true of all digital media, whether they are digitisations or born-digital. An archive is not exactly "raw." A digital research tool promotes a certain way of doing research. Designing an interface is about more than just bells and whistles. Every creative act or editorial decision is unavoidably, necessarily interpretive.

The second assumption is related to the first and is more of an issue of focus. In my English undergrad, the only kind of research I'd done or even had exposure to was the traditional essay. But DH introduced me to many non-traditional methods and forms of research, each with its own unique challenges and questions, and I had to rethink what "research" meant. People have offered their own takes on this, but for me, it involved focusing more on the process than the product. I consider research, at its simplest, to be the process of asking a difficult, complex question and contributing something thoughtful, meaningful, and valuable to the academic conversation around that question. Since the questions are numerous (infinite, maybe) and multi-faceted, then the contribution you make can take any number of forms—an archive, a digital tool, a multimedia website, etc. The list grows longer all the time.



The Benefits of Undergraduate Digital Scholarship...

The emphasis on process is not new to Digital Humanities; DH is very concerned with documenting the research process and openly discussing methodology and biases. DH is also a very social affair, and that has led to more interesting suggestions and encouraging remarks than I could have anticipated. The chance for experiential learning has also been one of the biggest benefits of my Student Assistantship. It's a chance to learn new skills from people in different fields (e.g. metadata standards) that I would otherwise never be able to. And it is also a chance to practice the skills I learn in class everyday—how to read critically, synthesize information, and communicate it clearly—and use them to explore something I am personally curious about.

I cannot overemphasize how different it feels to be doing an independent project outside of my coursework—to feel like a practicing scholar rather than just a learning-to-be-one. It feels empowering (if you'll let me be touchy-feely for a second) and it has already made my university experience so much better. Part of it is that I get quite a bit of creative control over what I produce and I don't know if that's always the case with undergraduate research. Part of it is that the project is unique, but still accessible to a general audience. And part of it is that Digital Humanities in general is relatively new, exciting and has a lot of yet unexplored territory.


...And its Challenges

If feeling like the only undergraduate to be doing this at Queen's can feel empowering at times, then it can also feel lonely at others. I have a support system ("Team Stereocards"—we should get shirts!) but it's still not the same thing as talking to another undergraduate working in Digital Humanities. I'm almost certain that there are others at Queen's doing what could be considered DH (even if they don't call it that themselves), but I have no idea where they are, what they do, or how to find them.

The other challenges are about learning new skills—the kind that no one's really told me before because they involve the unsexy but necessary process of actually getting something published. First and foremost is project management, which only starts to sound like common sense once someone explains it to you. Another thing is that getting something on the web is more complicated than might first appear. For me, this means meeting certain technical constraints (about compatibility, sustainability, etc.) that make sense but are nevertheless hard to work around; what I want to do doesn't always line up with what the existing structures can support. This taps into a bigger issue about how to support scholars with different needs and technical skills in our digital age.

Communication is also a challenge. My project isn't really collaborative (I get to make most of the decisions and do most of the work), but I still get input from and work with various people because there are so many moving parts to it. And when I run into problems, I can talk to different people depending on what the problem is. But the problems sometimes bleed into or affect each other in ways that need more explanation than a simple update. In short, I have meetings with different people, but the only person in all the meetings is me. Blog posts have been particularly good for combating this problem: they're long form so I can contextualize the problem properly, and it gives me more time to reflect on and better articulate the issues I'm having.


The Centre for Digital and Print Cultures

The Centre for Digital and Print Cultures is a new initiative and part of the Library Archive Master Plan (LAMP). Although it's still taking shape, I think it's the most exciting thing since sliced bread. As I understand it, the current plan is to have a space that will both be about providing access to research materials (both digital and print) as well as facilitating and supporting digital forms of research. It will also be a community-oriented space, encouraging people across disciplines to collaborate and share their work with each other.

One of the main issues that came up was the digitization of rare materials. The biggest and most visible benefit of digitization is still the ability to provide wider, more convenient access to otherwise inaccessible materials. This is especially important with increasing class sizes, where not every student can access the same material at the same time. There is also the issue of different needs for different purposes: Art History students, for example, need to see illustrations in detail so merely transcribing or OCRing a book wouldn't work. We also discussed issues of open access and copyright.

But personally, what I was more interested in was the opportunities and support for digital forms of research. I would love the chance to learn and experiment with different digital tools, especially ones that are expensive (for an individual), like Adobe Photoshop or 3D Printers. When it comes to technology, I think the best way to learn is just to practice and tinker with it. Having a kind of "digital workspace" would be a great way to explore personal curiosities and be creative outside of class. There are so many tools out there to choose from, all with different applications and made for people with different skill levels, and I think the best way to be aware of the possibilities is just to let people try them out.

While at the Field School, we discussed how the "boutique" digital project (the small-scale one driven by singular scholarly interest) is generally no longer fashionable in DH. But speaking as a student, I think boutique projects are invaluable. When you're still wrapping your head around what research is or can be about, it's hard to look at a large-scale project and understand how it gets from an idea to a finished product. Boutique projects, for me, were always a safe space to learn or practice a new skill or tool—whether that's Photoshop, web design, or 3D printing—and have fun while doing it. It feels like educational, constructive play. I learned HTML and CSS by making boutique projects, and I would only be stubborn enough to hunt down that one missing semicolon because I was trying to make something I care about.

Those skills have turned out to be quite useful. I use Photoshop and web design for my Assistantship, and it's easier to communicate with and understand where my more technically-involved teammates are coming from. Learning technical skills is not just about making your own thing, but also about understanding how things get made so that it's easier to collaborate with someone else. In this regard, I see a lot of potential for exciting, interdisciplinary collaboration in the Centre for Digital and Print Cultures.


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