Origin Story

Posted in: scholars lab  alt ac  pedagogy 
Crossposted to the Scholars' Lab blog.

Students often ask me during professional development conversations to talk about my own path that brought me to where I am today. I thought I would document a version of that narrative here in the spirit of the “Origin Stories” shared as a part of the Speaking in Code event hosted by the Scholars’ Lab years ago. I found those narratives to be helpful as I was finding my own way, however contextual and idiosyncratic they might be. It’s hard to know where one might walk when the tracks aren’t always clear. Hopefully my own winding path will prove useful to someone else, even with all the caveats I note below about how dependent my own story is on circumstance, luck, and privilege. This post will be a little more detailed than the 1:1 conversations I have with students, and I’ll try to save reflections for the end.

I was a big tech nerd growing up. I played video games obsessively. As far back as I can remember, I told people that I planned on being a video game developer and was going to ride my bike to Seattle to enroll in Digipen. This cross-country bike ride never materialized, in part because in high school I took AP Computer Science and despised it. I did fine in the course, but I absolutely hated the process of writing code with pencil and paper.1 That learning experience turned me off from any potential career in the field. At the same time, fantastic teachers were encouraging my growing interests in music and literature. I wound up studying the latter subjects in college and leaving behind my childhood interests in programming.

When I started my PhD program in English at UVA I had never heard of digital humanities. Fresh out of a terminal MA degree at the same institution, I somehow missed all the DH work going on at UVA already. Even had I heard about it, I probably would have assumed it was not for me based on my past negative experiences learning C++. I was ultimately pulled into the orbit of DH and the Scholars’ Lab by a few historical coincidences:

  1. I started my PhD in 2011
  2. The Praxis Program also started in 2011
  3. During its first year of the program, Praxis did not have a university-wide reputation just yet so the applicant pool was lopsided towards particular disciplines. The first cohort consisted of five students from English and one from Art History.
  4. Because of point three, I knew a lot of people taking part in the Praxis program that first year.

I observed from the outside as my friends got a hands-on, rapid introduction to a range of DH methods and conversations. I saw their work on Prism, a tool for crowdsourcing textual interpretation. At the same time, I was just starting to develop my dissertation topic on sound recordings and literature. My initial interest in DH was based on this work in multimedia. I thought a dissertation on audio might be aided by technology, by thinking beyond the printed page. And the growing reputation of the Scholars’ Lab among my friends was that it was a space in which newcomers and experienced programmers alike could find a home. I thought I would give programming another shot.

I applied for the Praxis program the next year and didn’t make the cut. I was waitlisted, so I assumed that was that–DH wasn’t for me. Shortly thereafter I attended ThatCampVA and sheepishly avoided all the Scholars’ Lab staff based on lingering feelings of rejection. Months later and right before the next academic year I got a call from Eric Johnson to let me know that a student had withdrawn from the fellowship. I hopped off the waitlist and took part in the second Praxis cohort. The Praxis Program for me was a broad introduction to digital humanities development as I worked on a Ruby on Rails application. But I was really struck by the new way of thinking about my potential future and the way that I related to work. More than any new skill (though there were those too!), I took away a new community, one with different values and commitments than I had found elsewhere in the academy.

After the Praxis fellowship I bounced around a few different DH opportunities during the rest of my graduate degree. I project managed for NINES. I worked on the backend of a now defunct website for teaching rhetoric and composition. I started working with Eric Rochester 1:1 to learn about text analysis. And Wayne Graham invited me to co-teach humanities programming at HILT to get some more teaching chops. Laid out all at once like that, it sounds like I had a robust set of experiences professionalizing me in DH, and I was immeasurably lucky and privileged to have had these opportunities. At the time, things all felt very scattershot and taken on by random chance. I jumped at whatever opportunities appeared, but it never felt as though there was a clear path through school towards DH. I never thought of DH as a real career option for me even though I was accumulating a series of experiences in that direction.

Two conversations helped me to see a viable future in DH.

I professionalized during my degree as though I was planning to go on the academic job market. I published, went to conferences, etc. But I remember having a conversation with my dissertation director Michael Levenson towards the end of my degree about how my heart wasn’t in it. I explained to him that I felt pulled in three different directions: my research, teaching, and digital humanities. Michael could really read a room. He generously asked me why I was planning to apply to academic jobs I fundamentally didn’t want and encouraged me to embrace the pieces of my experience that really moved me. “Why would we only want people with PhDs in Universities?” is a quote from that discussion that stuck with me. Many are not so lucky to have an advisor who was so willing to see futures beyond the professoriate. And many are not so lucky as to have the space and financial ability to determine their futures in this way. I ultimately decided not to go on the academic job market.

I started a long-term relationship with my wife around the same that my advisor helped free my own thinking from pursuing academic jobs for their own sake. She still had a few more years left at UVA in her PhD program, so I suddenly had personal reasons for wanting to stay semi-local. Two regional opportunities popped up on my radar: a developer position working in the UVA Library and a postdoctoral fellowship at Washington and Lee focused on digital humanities. I remember discussing the two job postings with Wayne while walking back from teaching programming together at HILT. I didn’t feel qualified for either position, but it felt like I couldn’t pass up local opportunities like these. Wayne encouraged me to think of my scattershot experiences as valuable. “Would I ever be qualified for something like this?” I asked. His response was generous and supportive. “You’re qualified now - definitely apply.” The Scholars’ Lab provided invaluable help to me as I went through the application process. I ultimately wound up taking the W&L postdoc for a number of reasons. The postdoc was more squarely a digital humanities position. It was also four years (an enormous and unusual length for a postdoc). And while they both focused on programming, I had the sense that the W&L position would be more flexible and allow me to move in different directions.

I stayed in the Washington and Lee position for just 15 months of the promised four years. I had hardly any experience in the small liberal arts scene, and in my time at W&L I came to deeply admire how pedagogy suffused all the work they did. These experiences helped me to shape a body of interests that could join what had until now felt like distinct pieces of my personality. Rather than thinking of DH, teaching, and research as separate, WLUDH showed me that these could all be one and the same. My colleagues at WLUDH made space for the position to grow with me. I still did some development work, but I was free to work more in the direction of pedagogy, curricular development, and OER than intended. I was actually teaching a course when I got a notification that UVA had posted the Head of Graduate Programs position after Purdom Lindblad left to be Assistant Director of Innovation and Learning at MITH.

In this context, the return to UVA, to the Scholars’ Lab, and my current position made a lot of sense. I was returning back to help administer the very programs that shaped me into the scholar practitioner that I had become. The Scholars’ Lab position was an opportunity to take the work I had done at W&L with teaching and return to a program that I could shape for years to come. From a personal standpoint, I was looking at the difference between an 80-minute and a 15-minute commute. And the move was also a jump from term-limited, contract employment to a position in which I was salaried on hard money. All the same, I agonized over the decision quite a bit. WLUDH and my colleagues there (shout out to Mackenzie Brooks and Julie Kane in particular) had made the space a really generative one that I was reluctant to leave. I remember taking a photo of an overlook on Route 81 on the afternoon of my last commute to commemorate the experience. I may have cried as the relief of leaving that commute behind washed over me.

And that’s where I’ve been for the last six years, coincidentally starting work at the Scholars’ Lab on the same day as my supervisor Amanda Visconti. I am eternally full of gratitude to the many mentors, collaborators, and friends who helped guide me on this path and gave advice as I struggled with decisions at hinge points. But I am also keenly aware of how much of my own path is the result of fortuitous circumstances. Every time we run a fellowship application cycle I think about how my own life was changed by being on a waitlist. Every time I talk with a student I think about how fortunate I was to get the right encouragement at the right time. And I also am fully aware of how much privilege I enjoyed during this journey–both as a cis white man and as someone at a well-funded institution with resources to learn digital humanities. Whenever I see a post for a one-year postdoc I think about how enormously lucky I was to have the security of my multi-year contract at W&L. I want to pay forward the generosity I received to the next generation of DH graduate students, and this is a large part of why I blog publicly as much as I do. Both of my cover letters for the jobs mentioned in this post are available to read. But there is always more work to be done, on the systemic level as well as the individual. I see a direct line between the rambling path I took through graduate school and my current work with UCWVA-UVA, UVA’s wall-to-wall union. As a part of that group I organize alongside graduate students, faculty, and other staff to help make the road walked by the next person a little easier to follow, to make the academy more just and equitable for all. That’s really the subject of another post, though - less about origins and more about the futures we all hope to see in higher education.

  1. To be fair to the teacher, she was modeling the format of the AP exam which would have us write dozens of lines of code out by hand in a booklet. Amanda Visconti has pointed out how ironic this is given my focus on minimalist digital pedagogy that focuses on pencil and paper activities.