For the past twelve months, I have been the Digital Humanities Graduate Assistant for Penn State University’s Arts and Humanities Libraries. Thirteen months ago if anyone had asked me what DH meant, my response would have most likely been, “I don’t really know. Maybe it’s about teaching with technology, incorporating the use of social media in your class, or using different programs for your research (as in blogging about your research or using a citation management program to organize your sources).” Thirteen months ago when someone asked me how did I become the DH graduate assistant, my response would most likely also have been, “I don’t really know. I applied because I needed to do something different, to learn something new.”
At that time, I had dabbled with a few ideas and programs that could fit into the realm of DH. With a lot of help, I created an online version of CMLIT 010: Introduction to World Literatures in which my lectures were recorded on VoiceThread and a large component of the students’ grades involved interacting with these lectures and blogging about connections between literature and current events. I had tried (not very successfully) to create a map of Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado’s travels that would be a visual representation of where he was, when and why. I had created a website using Google Apps and one using WordPress, and I had learned to edit pages in Dreamweaver. I was also familiar with several translation tools, both hard drive and cloud-based. However, although I enjoyed learning about new technologies and figuring out how to use them, I would not have considered myself “computer savvy”.
When I started this assistantship, I had to dive right in. I immediately became involved with several projects: the planning for the 2013 LASTS, creating a DH guide, creating a map of literary translations, and attending the Digital Humanities 2013 conference in Lincoln, Nebraska. I had a lot of learning and catching up to do in a very short period of time. The conference was my first real introduction to DH because there I was able to see it in action, and it was there that I realized it was not about the tools at all. Although the tools help, DH is a whole new way of looking at the Humanities; a new methodology for thinking about humanities teaching and research. I was completely overwhelmed by everything around me, yet, in awe of how scholars were stretching the boundaries of traditional research in innovative ways. In Lincoln, I also began learning how to use some tools, the first of which was Voyant. I was amazed at how I could upload a piece of literature into the program and receive all of this new information in return.
Once I returned from Nebraska, and throughout most of the Fall semester, (in addition to everything else I was doing) I felt I needed to read everything I could about DH and about the key DH scholars to get myself up to speed. This seemed like a great idea at first, but naturally unsustainable, especially since, as with most disciplines and methodologies, there are many schools of thought, each with their own definition of DH and what it does. Instead of learning anything, I felt as if I were simply becoming more and more overwhelmed, collecting pages and pages of information but not understanding what to do with them.
Since I have always learned better by exploring ideas and programs, I switched strategies and began working with one tool at a time, studying it and putting it into practice. Two methods that helped me with this learning process were writing instructional blogs (see the DH Guide) and presenting tools at our monthly Digital Humanities Interest Group Meet-Ups. At first, I felt very self-conscious about putting instructions on the internet or speaking of these tools to an audience because I did not feel confident about using the programs, and often, did not feel qualified to write or speak about them, much less instruct others on using them.
Once these feelings of inadequacy passed, everything changed. I believe my blog posts became more substantial (a couple even received outside recognition and went “viral” on Twitter), my own project began taking shape and was even honored at this year’s Graduate Exhibition, other people’s projects began making much more sense, and most importantly, I began to truly enjoy using DH as a methodology. It helped breathe new life into my own work, and, today, I cannot imagine my project without it.
I have learned so much this past year, and I’m very grateful to many people for that, including Chris Long, Mike Furlough and all of the Arts and Humanities Library librarians and staff, but I am specially grateful to Dawn Childress. Dawn has been a mentor and friend, and has become someone I truly admire for all of the knowledge she holds and willingly shares as well as for how hard she works. I am also very grateful for her patience with me, throughout my learning period and the many personal trials with which I have dealt this past year. Dawn helped me to overcome these issues and guided me into making my own path, professionally and personally. She has also helped me see and understand a side of academia that to which I would not have otherwise been exposed, giving me the strength to not give up and rekindling my motivation to continue writing and finish my dissertation. It’s been a delight to sit across from her, bouncing ideas off of one another, working together, and chatting about everyday life.
As I sit here, I am trying very hard to think of something about my experience that I wish had been different or that I did not particularly care for, but I cannot. Of course, there were tasks or tools that were not my favorites, but everything had its value, and in the end, contributed to my learning. Next year, I will not be on campus and will no longer be working directly with Dawn, but it will be an honor to continue working with her on projects in development and projects to come (one of which is a literary translation map that hopefully we will be able to launch sometime soon). I recommend this assistantship to all humanities graduate students and wish many others receive the same opportunity I was given.
I hope we stay in touch and meet again soon!