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Zombie digital humanities

I've been thinking a lot lately about the undead, various forms of afterlife, and how they intersect with digital humanities. As a result, Halloween seemed a fitting occasion to relaunch the blog at Stanford's Digital Humanities website, with further reanimation to come.

First, by way of introduction, I'm Quinn Dombrowski, the new Academic Technology Specialist in CIDR (Center for Interdisciplinary Digital Research) and the DLCL (Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages) at Stanford. Which is to say, I support the "doing" of DH in literature (other than English, East Asian, or Classics), in a position jointly funded by that division and Stanford Libraries. My background is in Slavic linguistics, and I picked up a Master's in Library and Information Science along the way.

I stumbled into digital humanities in 2004 when I begged the UChicago Slavic department to let me redesign the departmental website (it had animated GIFs of matryoshkas). In doing so, I tipped my hand that I Knew Things About Technology. When Prof. Daniela Hristova (may she rest in peace) got a grant to do a digital version of the Primary Chronicle, she brought me in to wrangle the technology for the project. Three years later I was interpreting for Russian presenters at the international Digital Humanities 2007 conference, and a year after that, I was on the program staff of a million-dollar Mellon-funded digital humanities cyber infrastructure initiative called Project Bamboo, which has had its own afterlife as a cautionary tale for large consortial infrastructure initiatives.

Between then and now, I've had about five discrete jobs, three of them "in" DH. Before I moved from Chicago to Berkeley and had kids, my nights and weekends could backfill when I didn't have a DH job, allowing me to keep my projects alive. In the last 18 months, the combination of a preschooler, a toddler, and a pregnancy, along with an explicitly non-DH job in research computing, essentially spelled the end of my involvement with DH: the maintenance of my projects (DiRT and DHCommons, rest in peace) and my ability to meaningfully engage with the community.

It's a common lament that people in alt-ac jobs don't have the same level of autonomy as people in academic roles, but the typical examples lean towards the day-to-day or month-to-month. Not having time to do research, not being able to go to conferences. Less commonly cited, though no less true, is the way that the scope and nature of alt-ac jobs can shift dramatically with changes in administrative priorities, funding, and strategy. A library or IT group can publicly declare DH to be part of its mandate, or DH can exist in a gray area, or it can be explicitly out of scope -- and all three can happen at the same institution within the span of a few years. When the DH tide recedes at work, people in these alt-ac positions face a choice of whether to redirect time from other corners of their life to maintain a tie to the DH world, accept going dormant for a time that may stretch out indefinitely, or lean into the new status quo and become something else. There is life after DH.

I was in the last of these camps for the last year and a half. DH was still what I knew best, but there wasn't really a way for me to do it at the institution I was certain I would retire from someday. I was going to do research facilitation for non-traditional users of high performance computing. "Just think of me as Obi-Wan Kenobi," I joked with a DH-oriented colleague at work. "I'll be in that Research IT cave over there, and if you're ever in great need, you can come find me."

Especially during this last year, I'm grateful to the DH necromancers who made porous the barrier between the living and the dead, inviting me to give keynotes and speak on panels, and making it logistically feasible with travel support. It may not work for all DH ghosts (especially those who have jobs entirely outside the academy), but at least in my alt-ac position, it's enough of an honor to be asked to keynote an event that it didn't take much work to convince my organization to spare me for a day or two, if it didn't impact their travel funds. It's a reminder for to me to try to pay those invitations forward to other dearly departed from the field.

I’ve been happily undead for the last month now, and I've been reflecting on what's changed in DH in terms of tools and methods. TEI isn't going anywhere and thematic research collections are still very much a thing, but it’s heartening to see more thought going towards “collections as data”, rather than simply building beautiful websites. I’ve been around long enough to remember the debates about whether blogging about academic topics constituted “digital humanities”. Then came the emergence of Twitter and the decline of blogging as a forum for scholarly discourse. DH dialogue these days seems fragmented across many platforms and channels, but I’ve been heartened to see favorite blogs that had gone dormant (such as Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s) once again light up my feed reader, even as other stalwart blogs have recently met abrupt ends (RIP dear Library Loon).


Returning to digital humanities, I’ve been struck by the usefulness of old blog posts I’ve re-discovered, even those dating back half a decade or more. Scott Weingart’s posts about network analysis, spurred by a post by Elijah Meeks, have been a wonderful refresher on a set of tools I barely dabbled with in my previous DH lives. For seeing what others are working on, I find reading blogs to be much more tractable than trying to stay on top of the tweet stream, and I’m grateful to aggregators like Digital Humanities Now for those times when I need a more concentrated distillation of goings-on in DH. So in the spirit of Elijah Meeks (another of Stanford’s DH-departed, now with Netflix), I’ll be blogging here, and inviting others in the Stanford DH community to do the same. I hope you’ll join me for reanimating the Stanford Digital Humanities blog.