The Life of a (Scholars') Lab: on Community

Posted in: digital humanities  scholars lab  talks 

Crossposted to the Scholars’ Lab blog

I was on a roundtable at ACH 2019 on The Life of a Lab, described on our slides as discussing “Cross-sectional issues of administration, funding, identity, and disciplinarity in DH labs.” The rough text of my talk follows along with my slides.

Slide deck title - The Life of a (Scholars') Lab

I’m Brandon Walsh, the Head of Student Programs in the Scholars’ Lab, a center for experimental scholarship in the University of Virginia Library, where our work is informed by digital humanities, spatial technologies, and cultural heritage. We are a part of and report through the library, and all but one of our employees are currently on hard salary lines. There’s much more to be said about nitty gritty things, and I’m happy to speak further in conversation with others about the Lab’s positioning and infrastructure. For now, I’ll just offer thoughts on this conversation from my own corner of our work, which is primarily student-driven and pedagogically inflected. The points I’ll raise aren’t ones we have the answers to necessarily, but they’re the work that we’re trying to think through.

Slide - photo of Scholars' Lab public space. Large room with chairs, tables, and computers.

I want to begin by situating my ideas in our space. This is a fisheye view of our public area (photo credit to Shane Lin), where students, faculty, and staff can collaborate on projects or get access to certain software packages (particularly GIS). It’s one of a few spaces we have, and we share it with the library and the public. Our makerspace is nestled in the back there, and any given day we have a number of people working there, some formally affiliated with us, some not. In the Lab we often say we prioritize building up people over projects. This positioning - this space that people move in and out of - both reflects and informs our philosophy in the Scholars’ Lab, which I’ve broken down here into a short list of points. Think of them as things I’d be likely to print out and pin to my wall as reminders/precautions/aspirations. Because of my own role, my remarks will largely deal with students.

Slide - Point 1: A lab's community changes over time

Point 1: A lab’s community changes over time.

The life of a lab is one that waxes and wanes, that has lifecycles like any living thing. The Scholars’ Lab has a charter that expresses our values, but half of the people who wrote that document (one that is still very important to us) don’t work in the lab anymore (we’ll hopefully be renewing and rewriting soon). In the context of student work, one thing we think a lot about is how the community we give most of our resources to is necessarily going to leave (former Director Bethany Nowviskie has great reflections on this in her post “Too Small to Fail”). That’s not a problem per se. But it does lead to a difficult ebb and flow of outreach. It’s difficult to establish an identity on such shaky territory, and, yet, we’re nevertheless regularly called upon to do so. Life is about change.

Slide - Point 2. Community definitions include -- and exclude.

Point 2: Community definitions include – and exclude.

We recently had something of a reckoning with our own identity as a digital humanities center - I think our reputation is largely as a DH center, but only about a third of our staff identified as DH. We’re still trying to reckon with this, but you caught a glimpse of it in how I defined what we do at the beginning of the talk. These definitional issues draw boundaries for people, and administrative choices can more explicitly delimit your community in exclusionary ways. From the student side of things, we work extensively with graduate students, but less so with undergraduates. MA students have a more difficult time finding their way into our named programs, and humanities-minded students in the sciences, architecture school, and others have bureaucratic difficulties to working with us. They still can, but the occasions are different. Much of my energy these days is spent trying to be more inclusive and inviting, both in abstract ways but also by dealing with red tape that throws up real barriers for people.

Slide - Point 3. A diverse community requires varied types of support.

Point 3: A diverse community requires varied types of support.

Those different groups I mentioned? They all have different circumstances. MA students and PhD students, for example, all have different lived realities, positions in the university, goals, and needs. We’re constantly thinking about what meaningful units of support are – course credits, wages, stipends to offset teaching requirements. But there are also other things that are meaningful – help with professional development, emotional support, showing up for their dissertation defenses, etc. All of these things matter, but they matter in different ways to different people (and they cost different things to us as staff). This cuts across different areas of work as well. You can’t think about just one public or just one student body or just one monolithic Faculty with a capital F. It’s important to work across all these categories.

Slide - Point 4 - Community members will leave.

Point 4: Community members will leave.

A variation of point one. We do a disservice to our students and our community members if we are not thinking about what comes next for them. For our staff, it means encouraging professional development and recognizing that if they leave to go on to better things that means we’ve done our job well. For colleagues in precarious positions it means trying to advocate for the best possible circumstances for them we can, working against toxic systems that place them in such positions, and elevating their work and voices. For students in the Scholars’ Lab, this means engaging with a program called PHD+ that tries to prepare students for diverse career outcomes after graduating. It means having frank conversations with them about precarious labor in academia and in DH.

Slide - Point 5: We can always be better.

Point 5: We can always be better.

How can we be better? That’s the animating question that has been hovering behind all my comments so far and that drives my thinking on our student programs. For me, this means consistently re-reading and re-consulting the Postdoctoral Bill of Rights and the UCLA Student Collaborator Bill of Rights as touchstones for what we do. And groups like AADHum and DH-WoGeM are doing so much to elevate important conversations that we try (and will keep trying) to bring into our work in the lab. There are systemic forces structuring the way we interact with our community - and the way you interact with yours. Pushing back against them should be part of the long-term plans for a lab’s work. Even if things seem to be going well in a general sense, someone in your community is struggling.

Because talking about the life of a lab is really secondary to talking about the life -the lives - in a lab. We have a responsibility to do right by those people whom we teach, employ, collaborate with. This means approaching issues of infrastructure and administration with a sense of the lived impact these decisions have. We can always be better - there is always work to be done. That’s the work that we’re engaged in right now in the Lab.

I’m happy to talk more. For now I’ll yield to the rest of the group.