The Future of RRCHNM

This is the text of my presentation in the session on the future of digital humanities centers, on day two of RRCHNM20. November 15, 2014.  I wasn’t originally slated to be one of the speakers, but by the time it became clear that one person we had invited could not attend, I realized that I should be speaking, that people wanted to hear from me about the future of RRCHNM. Accordingly, I departed from the brief and spoke not about DH centers in general, but instead about the future of the center whose anniversary we marked that day. We will soon be posting video recordings of both this session, and the afternoon session on the future of digital history. In the meantime, Bethany Nowviskie, one of the other speakers has also posted her talk online: “speculative computing and the centers to come.”
—Stephen Robertson

The twentieth anniversary of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media finds it in a period of transition. A little more than a year ago, both Dan Cohen, the director, and Tom Scheinfeldt, the managing director, whose names appear in the credits of at least twenty-six Center projects, left to pursue new opportunities. The departure of visionary leaders has generally been fatal for digital humanities centers. But not so CHNM. The Center has already been through one such transition, the death of its founder, Roy Rosenzweig in 2007, whose loss in such tragic circumstances posed emotional as well as practical challenges. Then, Dan and Tom, with Kelly Schrum, Sean Takats and Sharon Leon, the three divisional directors, took on the leadership of the Center, and its staff rose to those challenges. Again now, the talent and experience of the Center’s staff, and the leadership of Kelly, Sean and Sharon, are providing continuity as the Center makes the transition to a new director. With a current staff of forty, a combination of tenure-line faculty, research faculty, designers, developers, administrative staff, and graduate research assistants, RRCHNM remains the largest digital center in the US, and positioned to pursue large-scale projects, including software development, that push the boundaries of digital humanities. Although the Center is part of the Department of History and Art History, most of those staff are neither on the tenure track nor within the administrative work structures that shape the careers of their departmental colleagues. The future of RRCHNM must and will include continued efforts to find ways to recognize, sustain and promote staff who pursue alternative academic careers.

Now, as in 2007, projects as well as people are crucial to the Center’s continuity and future. In the months surrounding Roy’s death, CHNM secured second round funding for Zotero and the Papers of the War Department, the first funding for Omeka, and the five-year grant for, a project that represented the peak of a decade of professional development work with K-12 teachers. Roy had a hand in all of those grants, but so too did many other staff. As iterative, generative projects rather than prototypes or one-off efforts, they have spanned successive cohorts of staff in the years after 2007 – in fact, two of those projects are providing direction for RRCHNM in the current transition just as they did in 2007. Almost ten years after its initial funding, earlier this year Zotero was at the center of grants from the Sloan and Mellon Foundations for research into altmetrics using Zotero datasets, and to develop feeds and integration with institutional repositories. Just over a month ago,  Omeka development expanded in new directions with funding from the Institute of Library and Museum Services for projects to connect  Omeka collections to in-gallery experiences, and to build plugins for text mining and text and image annotation. And extending this pattern, less than two weeks ago, the Center received funding for the next iteration of the PressForward project that Dan, Tom and Joan Troyano launched and shaped, and that Sean, Lisa Rhody and Stephanie Westcott now lead. Generative projects such as these provide the spine that gives shape to a soft money institution like RRCHNM, that hold it together in a way that short-term projects tied to specific staff and faculty simply could not. Looking to the future, we need to sustain this spine — and we do have an idea that we’re excited about, software to fill a gap in the digital research workflow, but as we’re still in the process of preparing to seek funding for it, I’m not going to announce it publicly.

Linking both people and projects, Roy’s vision remains at the core of the Center’s future: we aim to use “digital media and computer technology to democratize history—to incorporate multiple voices, reach diverse audiences, and encourage popular participation in presenting and preserving the past.” The twining of opportunities to democratize history and efforts to control access to digital content and platforms is as much a defining feature of the digital age as it was in 1994, when Roy founded the Center. As much as this dynamic means that Roy’s vision remains current, specific features of the current landscape point to a changing context that necessarily separates RRCHNM’s future from its past.

One striking discontinuity is the lack of opportunities to create the resources and professional development for K-12 history teachers that occupied the Center’s early years, and formed the largest part of its work over the last twenty years. Funding for those projects overwhelmingly came from the National Endowment for the Humanities Division of Education Programs’ Teaching and Learning Resources and Curriculum Development grants and US Department of Education’s Teaching American History Program; both no longer exist. At the same time, as digital technology and methodologies become more mainstream, new needs and opportunities are emerging for training university faculty and students. That RRCHNM has none of the institutional service obligations that characterize most other Centers gives it scope to think about training more broadly, to contribute to the variety of strategies and approaches needed to scale up the engagement with the digital of humanities faculty and students. It’s clear to me that our strengths lend themselves to a disciplinary approach to expanding training, to working with historians and art historians, and to integrating the digital into department curriculums. After all, we are located in a Department of History and Art History, and have six staff with PhDs in history and a dozen GRAs from the department’s PhD program. Anchoring digital methods and approaches in the courses, sources and questions with which historians and art historians work, and the digital elements of their existing practices, such as the use of digitized sources and full-text search, is one strategy for making the digital easier to understand and credible, and encouraging the participation of those with limited skills, confidence and time – a group that crucially includes many of the tenured and senior faculty who shape curriculum and the training of graduate students. That approach is not a retreat from digital humanities; rather, it builds a bridge to communities around digital approaches and methods, creating digital historians who can participate in digital humanities.

RRCHNM has already begun this work. Sharon Leon and Sheila Brennan led two two-week summer institutes this year, one supported by the Getty Foundation for art historians, one supported by the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities, for mid-career American historians. Sharon and I travelled to Millsaps College in Jackson, MI, to run a three-day workshop for their History Department. In the future, we want to build on this work to develop formats that are more scalable – regional weekend workshops & online resources, such as novice-focused documentation for open source tools, to allow individuals who don’t have time or money for institutes to learn on their own.

Being part of the Department of History and Art History also gives RRCHNM an opportunity to help shape the future of graduate education. This fall, with the support of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, we’re collaborating with the department to develop three online courses for a new graduate certificate in public digital humanities (which also requires an internship in addition to the online coursework). This project, which draws on the experience of Kelly Schrum and her team in developing and teaching Hidden in Plain Sight, an online professional development for Virginia high school teachers, aims to get beyond Blackboard to develop models of online learning suited to the digital – and to make digital coursework accessible to the still large number of students and professionals whose programs do not offer it. The graduate certificate will be offered for the first time in Fall 2015.

RRCHNM’s role in the department’s own PhD program is also moving in new directions. Center staff have long been involved in teaching the two digital history courses that are a requirement for students in the program; and many students have also had the experience working in CHNM as a graduate research assistant. In the last three years funding from the Provost has more directly connected the program and the Center, supporting three cohorts of Digital History Fellows, who take a series of practicum classes in the Center. Even more so than the experience of being a GRA, the practicums acquaint students with the audiences beyond the academy with which the Center works, and with the different forms of work involved in digital projects – in other words, they offer an introduction to the alt-ac world that complements their training as digital historians. We learned last week that the department had received funding from the Provost to support three more cohorts of Digital History Fellows. This will give us the opportunity to further explore how hands-on work in a center might fit with disciplinary digital coursework in a graduate education that equips students from academic and alt-ac jobs – that provides a formal training akin to the experiences of many of the people currently on the Center’s staff.

A team of people with a variety of skills, roles, and careers, large enough to produce and sustain generative projects, concerned with training faculty and graduate students in disciplinary contexts and developing alt-ac careers, with the mission of using digital media and computer technology to democratize history, art history, and the humanities: that is my vision for the future of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.