As of today, I’ve been at the Sherman Centre for one month, and I’m enjoying both McMaster and Hamilton tremendously. I’ve already met a lot of people — and I know I’ll meet more — but I thought it might be useful to put together a self-introduction, based on the questions that people most often ask me:
I’m a recent graduate of the University of Washington’s PhD program in English and Textual Studies. My dissertation focused on 18th century English poetry about economics. While I was at the UW, I also taught courses in literature and composition, as well as writing courses for hard science and social science subjects.
When I’m not at the Sherman Centre, there’s a good chance that I’m knitting, hiking, bicycling, or petting my cat.
There are two answers to this question.
The first answer is that I heard about digital humanities for the first time shortly after I’d started working on my dissertation. I didn’t know much about what digital humanities (AKA digital scholarship) was — except that it involved computer programs. I didn’t know how computer programs might fit into studying 18th and 19th century English literature, but I started thinking about it.
Earlier that year, I had taught Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, which mentions that Jane’s salary as a governess is £30 per annum. My students wondered what that meant, in terms of purchasing power — and we had gone looking in digitized 19th century newspaper ads to find our answers.
After I learned about digital scholarship, I wondered: would it be possible to build a database that would contain prices from historical texts? I was imagining an interface where someone could type in an amount of money (£30), a date range (1840-1850), and a region (England), and click “Submit,” and then see an index of other things (goods, services, experiences) that cost £30. Or maybe they would start by entering a good, or a position (governess), a date range, and a region — and pull back all the salaries offered to governesses in newspapers or books at the time.
I knew that there were thousands of historical texts that had been digitized, so the information was out there. And once I started looking for prices, I discovered that novels (not to mention other documents) were full of them: loaves of bread, bottles of beer, theatre tickets, pills to cure syphilis…a near-infinite set of possibilities. A database of prices could illuminate studies focusing on labor and social class, not to mention illuminating how authors used information while writing fiction.
The idea for the price database was important because it gave me a specific goal to work towards, instead of trying to learn everything there was to know. As I’ve made progress with the price database, I’ve learned a lot about the ups and downs of working with computers in general for scholarly research.
The second answer to the question of how I got started is that learning about digital scholarship ended up changing the way that I pursued my non-digital scholarship.
When I first heard about digital scholarship, I was still in the early stages of dissertating, and frankly, I was floundering. I couldn’t get a grasp on the scope of my argument, and couldn’t seem to break it down into manageable pieces to focus on one at a time. My confidence in my abilities as a researcher was rather low.
When I started experimenting with the digital, I felt a lot less pressure to be good at it than I felt as a literature scholar. My high expectations were almost certainly what tripped up the diss; and starting to learn digital tools helped me learn how to rein in those high expectations and keep them under control. And as I finished my non-digital dissertation, I also began thinking about studying my dissertation subject using digital methods. I didn’t use them while finishing the diss — but thinking about them widened my perspective as I wrote, and helped me plan for the future. Certainly they’ll be important as I work on my book proposal, and take my research further.
There are numerous opportunities to train for digital work — but most of them are expensive, or feel like a risky investment, because it’s hard to evaluate whether they’ll actually serve the purpose you hope. And with so much diversity within digital scholarship, it’s hard to know where to start, or how much work will be involved — how digital do you have to be to be a digital scholar?
Having established those challenges, I have two major goals for my time here at the Sherman Centre:
- To make it easier for people to find opportunities where they can learn more, and have their questions about digital scholarship, resources, and methods answered.
- To be a sounding board and help people strategize as they figure out the best course of action for their research agendas.
No measuring stick exists that says “you must do x amount in order to be a digital scholar.” Some people make extensive use of digital technology, building and using powerful analytical programs. Other people wouldn’t describe themselves as digital scholars at all, though they make careful use of digitally-based archives.
What matters is that you have a rationale behind the choices that you’re making with regards to your tools and methods, and that you can explain what they add to your project. A major part of my role is to help members of the McMaster community discover their options for “going digital” (whether a little, or a lot!), and provide consulting as they determine the rationale behind their choices.
In other words, I’m here for people who want to become digital scholars, and for people who just want to learn more about making effective use of existing resources. I’m here especially for graduate students, who are preparing themselves for a challenging job market, and who are often fitting in extracurricular work to increase their digital competencies while completing rigorous “traditional” degree programs.
In service of my goals, one thing that I’ll be doing in the coming year is offering a set of workshops that I developed with colleagues at the University of Washington to provide a general orientation to digital scholarship.
Here are just a few of the areas where I have experience — send me an email if you’d like to discuss them in regards to your own work!
- Making the most of already-existing databases and digital resources
- Getting your project started, and creating short/long-term project management plans
- Figuring out what software/tools might be right for your goals — and which ones to avoid
- Finding and building an audience for a particular topic
- Using digital tools/resources in the classroom
- Finding training opportunities (both in-person and distance-learning)
- Creating opportunities that will help boost your confidence in your abilities as a digital scholar
- Preparing for the job market as someone who wants to do digital scholarship
If you’d like to talk about any of these, or other questions, feel free to get in touch with me to schedule a meeting or a cup of coffee.
Getting involved in digital scholarship has opened up avenues for my research that I would never have predicted, and changed the ways that I find new material. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to help members of the McMaster discover what’s possible for their own work.