Does My Project Look Big in This?


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Talk to the CRASSH Early Career Researchers Workshop, 'This Project Will Self-Destruct in Five Years: the beginning, middle and end of a digital humanities project, and how to keep it alive', University of Cambridge, 8 June 2012

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Does My Project Look Big in This?

  1. 1. Does My Project Look Big in This?Projects and the Digital Humanities Andrew Prescott, King’s College London
  2. 2. The word project dates from thefifteenth century. In the sixteenth andseventeenth centuries, the wordfrequently indicated shady dealings –attempts to tie up monopolies andinflate prices.
  3. 3. The eighteenth-century projector: an untrustworthy object of suspicion and ridicule, ripe for Swift’s satire
  4. 4. This video from the Institute of Project Management illustrates how the modern view of the project is diametrically opposite: modern history andachievement is defined here as a series of grand and successfully managed projects:
  5. 5. The Project: a keyword for our time• The New Labour project• The Euro project• The Obama project• A term for a body of intellectual work: - ‘Foucault’s project can be seen as a series of not necessarily connected attempts to let disqualified and subjected discourses and forms of knowledge speak’. - ‘In The Specters of Marx, Derrida characterizes the project of deconstruction as a political one’.• Applied retrospectively: - ‘We can identify the Enlightenment project as the attempt to identify and explain the human predicament through science’. - ‘The Renaissance: a cultural project’. - ‘The pursuit of the Newtonian project also led to a strikingly different conception of the world’.
  6. 6. Political projects are likely to be ephemeral and shortlived, even if monumental in their ambitions
  7. 7. The ‘Grand Projet’: the monumentality of the projectNot only France, but alsoOlympics, Shard,Gherkin, CanaryWharf…..
  8. 8. Humanity as a Project, and an app Join a viral conversation on the future of humanity (providing that you speak English, have an Amazon account, use an iPad and have access to the internet). But where is the project here: in the app, the conversation, or the outcomes?
  9. 9. The Paradoxes of the Project• The term ‘project’ stresses the personal and provisional character of human endeavour (Foucault project, Newton project), but it is used to imply the possibility of a fixed and settled conclusion (the completion of large buildings, implementation of single currency)• The term ‘project’ implies risk and possibility of failure but for many larger projects (EU, New Labour) the criteria for success are not clear
  10. 10. The Paradoxes of the Project• We look for permanence and stability from a project, but by definition projects are often hazardous and risky.• We are impressed by the scale and ambition of a project’s vision, yet good project management is about practicability, identifying practicable stages and reducing risk. How do you project manage the Enlightenment or the French Revolution?• Does my project look big in this? Are we really impressed by the project or by the scale of ambition?
  11. 11. Project managing the Shard: Despite our ubiquitous use of the project as a social and cultural metaphor, grandprojects like the Shard require concrete project management skills. But these skills areconcerned with translating the visions of others. Are they the sort of skills required for innovative academic research?
  12. 12. Lessons from the Shard for Digital Humanities• Some lessons can be read over: – Importance of communication – Need to understand how project is built – Need to grasp detail – Working within time constraints – Clear roles• But in other areas there are differences: – Who owns the vision in an academic project? – What are the criteria for success? – ‘Avoid getting too involved in the process’. But isn’t process precisely what research is about?
  13. 13. • The Digital Humanities is inhabited by projects• To keep the Digital Humanities mysterious, we shroud our projects in acronyms, whose true nature is known only to the priestly caste of practitioners of the digital humanities• The welter of Digital Humanities projects is all too often a way of preventing and discouraging engagement with the digital• A mysterious litany of acronyms shielding projects whose value or rationale is not immediately obvious
  14. 14. Guess the AcronymDARIAH:Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts and HumanitiesCLARIN:Common Language Resources and Technology InfrastructurePLANETS:Preservation and Long-term Access via NETworked ServicesNeDiMAH:Network for Digital Methods in the Arts and HumanitiesLAIRAH:Log Analysis of Internet Resources in the Arts and HumanitiesIDP:International Dunhuang Projector Integrating Digital PapyrologyADHO:Alliance of Digital Humanities OrganisationsCHAIN:Coalition of Humanities and Arts Infrastructures and Networks
  15. 15. Why is the Digital Humanities populated by projects?• Conventional academic departments are funded from teaching income with additional allowances and grants to support research• Projects are comparatively small in number and are often central to the intellectual aspirations of an individual academic• Digital Humanities Centres are generally supported almost entirely from research income and staff are paid from research grants• Grant making bodies are focused on supporting research (not teaching or access)• Grant making bodies require projects with clearly defined goals and milestones to ensure their money is properly spent• In order to keep staff on the payroll, digital humanities centres are on a treadmill of project applications and project delivery• The results is project slavery – a sort of intellectual sharecropping
  16. 16. What are the effects of projects on the digital humanities?• The pressure to maintain research income leads to a high proportion of projects which reflect intellectual agendas of other researchers and lack genuine innovation• Much of the work undertaken by early career researchers is service and delivery rather than genuine academic research• The pedagogical agenda remains under-developed because of the pressure of research projects• Research projects offer the only job opportunities for early career researchers• Early career researchers do not have time to develop their own digital activities or publications• Early career researchers cannot secure academic researchers and remain dependent on research projects, creating a vicious cycle of dependency
  17. 17. What are the effects of projects on the digital humanities?• Early career researchers locked out of academic posts• Digital humanities underdeveloped as an academic area• Digital humanities locked into an academic ghetto of ad hoc centres, institutes, etc.• No academic dialogue develops around the digital humanities which focuses on modelling and building• The digital humanities remains as no more than a software factory
  18. 18. Are We Really Building a Shard?• The Shard (or any other engineering project) is our governing metaphor for work in the digital humanities• Is it the most appropriate metaphor?• Does academic discourse build a monumental statement? Should digital humanities scholars seek to realise the visions of others? What is our definition of concluding an academic project?• Is academic discourse a continuing process – the antithesis of the project?• Does the concept of the project inherently restrict the digital humanities to a subsidiary role?
  19. 19. Is there an alternative to the project?• Change our business models so that they are more like those of conventional academic departments. More teaching!• We can focus less on building and more on being. We increasingly live and communicate in a digital environment. Do we need to build defined projects anymore?• We no longer need to show that the digital can be done; but we do need to show how the digital can transform scholarship.• Twelve books would be a lifetime’s work; yet junior researchers frequently juggle four or five projects of monograph complexity.• We can start to explore the implications and interconnections of digital work in just the way that we did before computers came along. We need to stop feeling anxious about the status of the digital.
  20. 20. A library catalogue is not a project (although particularlystages in its life such as card conversion might be projects).What is it? A space? A cumulation? Maybe we need to think more about spaces and interconnections than projects. Scholarly communication through blogs, tweets andFacebook will soon become very similar in its character to a library catalogue
  21. 21. A very early experiment in imaging a burnt manuscript under ultra-violet light.Kevin Kiernan: ‘These images seem to portend the start of something really big,expensive, and earth-shattering.Should we thinking more about connected experiments rather than projects?
  22. 22. The Electronic Beowulf: three editions in twelve years. Is this a project or anexploration? But how do we keep it going for the next fifty or a hundred years? Can projects exist outside an institutional framework?
  23. 23. Iain Sinclair on the grand project – the razing of London by theOlympic Project in a war of images:’s view is that these are issues of space and localities.Computer images are manipulated in such a way as to sequestratelocalities through imaginary projects.Is space the area in which we redefine the project and extirp itsbaleful influence in the Digital Humanities? Can the DigitalHumanities imagine new spaces of interaction which will free usfrom project slavery?