Blog Post

An Undergraduate's Love Letter to Digital Humanities Research

An Undergraduate's Love Letter to Digital Humanities Research

When a friend organized an event highlighting undergraduate research opportunities and asked me to speak about my Student Assistantship, I was surprised at how well-attended the session was. Many attendees said they were curious about research but admitted that they weren't too sure about what exactly was involved. Although the session went well, I couldn't help feeling a twinge of frustration. It was so hard to capture how doing research felt­—the slow, creeping, meaningful changes that become difficult to describe once you've been socialized into them. But I want to lay them out here because they were the most important things I learned at university and I worry that too few undergraduates get the same experience.


Research depends on access to materials

For an undergraduate student in a traditional classroom, this access is largely taken for granted. If I can't access a full article or if it isn't applicable to my research question, then I quickly move on because I have three other essays due and those secondary sources aren't going to incorporate themselves. Digital Humanities, however, pays particular attention to issues such as open access, web publishing, the public humanities, and archiving more generally. My studies and work in DH push me to more carefully consider how much time, effort, and thought go into creating, maintaining, and providing access to research materials at each step of an ongoing process. I've learned that what might seem tedious at times, like encoding mountains of TEI documents or plugging metadata into a spreadsheet, is actually very necessary and valuable work. I've learned that influential but unseen gaps persist in who has access to what, whether that is the digital divide or historical silences left in the wake of "the canon." And I've learned that documentation is also "archiving" in a sense: sharing (meta)knowledge makes life easier for others in the future –or at the very least, allows them to see where there is room for improvement. Even this blog post becomes part of the archive of my Assistantship experience. I am also inspired by metadata (or archiving) as "a love letter" or a "love note" to the future where the "love" is unconditional and concerned with the long game. We don't know what future people will find interesting or noteworthy, but we try to record what we think is most important in as sustainable a format as possible for the benefit of future users.

Inspired by a slide from Rachel Lovinger's Confab presentation


I also worked for an extended time with a relatively small collection at my university's Special Collections Library and I handled, researched and created metadata for the entire collection—even for objects that didn't make it into my virtual exhibit. Because of it, I felt more connected to the objects with which I was working. I felt like both a caretaker and a curator of the collection and making a good exhibit became, in some sense, about doing justice to the objects themselves. This is not always the case elsewhere in my undergraduate experience;  the only experience in class I've had with bibliographic or archival research is in 4th-year seminars and, after visits to Special Collections and Queen's Archives, many of my classmates were incredibly enthusiastic but said they'd wished they'd known about both resources earlier. Inspired by Lisa Surridge's "Material Matters" course, perhaps students—with the help of a friendly librarian—could "adopt" a book or other object in their area of interest from Special Collections. They could write a short blog post about it for the library website (a certificate and photo would be a nice touch). Students can familiarize themselves with how a Special Collections library works and learn valuable research skills. The library can engage students, not only by working with their collections, but also by sharing what they find fascinating about them.


Research is an iterative process

In a traditional classroom, the process of feedback and revision feels compressed:  I write an essay, the professor evaluates it, I receive a grade. To be sure, I read the comments, ask for clarification when needed, and remember those lessons for the next essay. But I never really get to "try again" and I hardly ever think about the essay after I get it back (beyond what I just described). Unlike the graduate level, I would never revise anything in the hope of eventual publication nor resubmit anything anywhere.

But in my Assistantship, my work has time to breathe and, because it is publicly accessible online, it lives outside "the audience of one" professor. It benefits from comments from supervisors, professors, attendees at a Senate Library Committee meeting, and virtual shout-outs from people I've never met in person—whether those comments are constructive criticism or simple encouragement. It has also evolved from several noticeably different prototypes over the course of a year. In an education system where it sometimes feels like assessment gets in the way of learning or like failure should be avoided at all costs, having these prototypes emphasizes process over product. (I should note that I never received a grade for the assistantship.) I've learned that the idea is not to never fail, but to "fail faster" in different and interesting ways.


Research is hard work, but it is also very rewarding in multiple ways

I have spent over two hundred hours on my project—about ten times more than I spend on an essay for class. The total word count of the web text is about six thousand words, which doesn't include the research "dark matter" of notes, outlines, and drafts. I have spent hours troubleshooting technical problems, googling solutions, plugging in and modifying code to see what works. I can't look at an image of a digitized object without flashing back to the time I scanned 216 images by myself, burning through 8tracks playlists and wondering at the woeful ergonomics of my chair. My workload still doesn't approach that of professors, librarians, support staff, and others, but I do think I appreciate it a bit better now. I have experienced the slog of a project's "Act 2" that sets in after the initial burst of novelty fades and before glimpsing the light at the end of the tunnel. I have felt the panic of an unexpected change in plan that just so happens to be both last-minute and at the worst possible time.

In addition, I've also gained some valuable skills. Though my assistantship did provide me with "hard" skills like metadata/archival work and web development, applying my "soft" skills in a context outside of class helped me better understand how they transfer. If professors fight the public perception of the ivory tower, English students (especially recent graduates) fight the public perception that good communication is chiefly about flawless grammar and avoiding language that is "totes inappropes" in professional settings. Thanks to my (Digital) Humanities education, I know that form is inextricable from content, whether that is a book, an essay, a photograph, or a website. I know small details make a big difference everywhere. Whatever I read, watch, look at or listen to, I don't just do so to comprehend, but to parse a complicated argument and prod at its underlying assumptions. And I know that the benefits of asking the right question, out of sensitivity and curiosity, far outweighs the cost of a "wrong" answer. The humanities have been very good at arguing that we have transferable skills, but less so at discussing exactly how and where they transfer. Digital Humanities research, because of its interdisciplinarity, makes me better at articulating my expertise in terms of skills instead of just subject.


Research grows out of and takes place in intersecting communities

I've left this for last, but I consider it the most important and the one that lends urgency to everything else. The traces of my intersecting communities are everywhere—all over my project, in and between every line of this blog post, and churning in the back of my mind. At the localized level, I don't just work with professors (or PhD candidates), but also with librarians and technical support staff in the Queen's community. Outside my local community, I am part of both online and in-person communities—at the Re: Hum '15 conference, on HASTAC, in the Twittersphere, and (soon) at DHSI and the University of Victoria. I read articles from places like Hybrid Pedagogy, Hook and Eye, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and other academic blogs that appear in my Twitter feed. None of them likely see undergraduates like me as their target audience but, because DH favours openness and accessibility, I found and read them anyway. Because of them and because my educators and mentors have been frank about them, I am aware of discussions about critical pedagogy, contingent academic labour, the "corporatization" of post-secondary education, etc. that I would likely never have discovered otherwise.

I am also inspired by Miriam Posner's definition of community as "people [who] are genuinely invested in seeing each other succeed." I have glimpsed, from a hundred tiny interactions, the celebrations, challenges and (sometimes) frustrations of those working around me to promote DH at an institution where it is gaining traction but not yet well-established. It's one thing to know that your supervisors, professors, and supporters are "busy" in the abstract; it's another to be privy to both the specifics and systemic forces that affect them. I now understand that the opportunities that I have took years to put into place and I want them to be there for future students after I've graduated. I understand that doing my job well makes my supervisors' arguments about DH's benefit more persuasive. I understand that undergrads can be the squeakiest wheels ever, knowing full well that people will greet my rampant enthusiasm with either genuine excitement and encouragement or, at the very least, the lukewarm benevolence afforded to optimistic-but-inexperienced young people.

"Maybe as an undergraduate, you thought professors had it easy--they slept late, only worked a few hours a day, just made up lectures as they went along. But now [that you are in graduate school] can see up close how many hours professors work on their publications in order to get tenure, how contentious academic politics can be, and how daunting and time-consuming grading a mountain of term papers is." -- Susan Basalla and Maggie Debilius

The most interesting thing about reading professionalization books for graduate students is what they say about undergraduates. For example, Semenza writes, "Few undergraduates know or care all that much about how their major departments operate and, in truth, their ignorance probably has no negative consequences." I don't deny that most undergrads know relatively little about how their academic departments, libraries or institutions really work. It can be difficult to talk about my assistantship to my peers without defaulting to a half-hearted "So how about them twelve-page papers, am I right?" But here is where I disagree with Semenza: I take these awkward silences, not as apathy, but as uncertainty at not knowing what to say or ask. It's not that we don't know and don't care; you might be surprised how much we'd care if we knew.

Moreover, this unawareness might have no immediate or directly negative consequences, but it is a missed opportunity for undergraduates to understand how systemic forces impact their educational experience. Undergraduates and educators should discuss the broader concerns of postsecondary education from multiple perspectives. In a community where I feel safe, supported, and cared for, knowing what I do makes me more attentive and empathetic to people and labour that is too often unrecognized or underappreciated. At the very least, knowing would allow students to make better, more informed decisions about graduate school or an academic career. At its best, knowing would inspire students to be more engaged, informed, and empowered citizens—the goal of any humanities education. If all of us students saw our words and actions as love letters to a future academic community, what might we say?



OhTiffany, how we will miss you! How lucky the University of Victoria is to have you coming to join their community of scholars. It's the undeniable excellence of undergrads like you who flourish in the DH research environment that gives us the energy to keep working at developing our network of enthusiasts and opportunities.


Tiffany, I can't even begin to express the joy this gives me; it also brought some tears to my eyes. It has been nothing but a pleasure and a privilege to have you as a student and a collaborator. As always, my usual pre-deadline cheer: Go forth, do great things! You've totally got this one. x


Thank you, Shelley! I will also miss everyone who made my experience at Queen's so amazing (but I'll save the tears for graduation). It's been such a pleasure :)


Your whole project is definitely a love letter to a future academic community Tiffany! We're so proud to have had you work with us. Fortunately, I'm sure we'll continue to meet in one way or another in those intersecting communities you so eloquently mention. Wishing you all the best!


Your whole project is a love letter to a future academic community Tiffany! We're so proud to have had you work with us. Fortunately, I'm sure we'll continue to meet in one way or another in those intersecting communities you so eloquently mention. Wishing you all the best!