Mellon Grant Extension Boosts Digital Humanities Graduate Training Program

February 06, 2012

A pilot digital humanities training program in the University of Virginia Library's Scholars' Lab will continue and possibly grow into a network of similar programs, thanks to a two-year grant extension from the Andrew Mellon Foundation.

The Praxis Program provides technical training and experience to a small, interdisciplinary group of graduate students interested in digital humanities scholarship. The first group of six students is currently working to develop Web-based text analysis software.

"The Scholars' Lab sees its role at U.Va. as being about fostering the next generation of digital humanities scholars and practitioners," said Bethany Nowviskie, the library's director of digital research and scholarship. "About a dozen students will get an intensive year-long internship experience with us because of this funding."

The Mellon Foundation recently added nearly two years to a series of grants dating to 2003 that fund the Scholarly Communication Institute, which is housed within the library. The more-than-$425,000 extension will fund the Praxis Program for the remainder of this academic year and for a second year, while also funding a number of other initiatives.

The program's current students are drawn from the art history and English departments of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. With the help of Scholars' Lab staff, they are designing and building a tool called Prism, which, when completed, will allow teachers and scholars to "crowd-source" – or digitally collect from a larger group – categorized reactions and analysis of a piece of literature or text.

Praxis acts as a sort of internship program within the Scholars' Lab, except the project is collaborative instead of individual, Nowviskie said. The students also blog and publish their results in real-time.

This is very different from the traditional "hoard and polish" technique, in which scholarly humanities research is an individual effort, published only in late stages, but it is very much in keeping with the emerging cooperative spirit of digital scholarship, Nowviskie said. Digital humanities projects at U.Va. cover a large swath of work, ranging from online archives of 19th-century scholarship to interactive maps of historical Jamaican architecture.

Because digital humanities work – and scholarly work in the humanities in general – is evolving quickly, there hasn't yet been a clear pedagogy for developing the mix of technical and scholarly skills required, Nowviskie said.

"What we're hoping to do over the course of the next 20 months of this grant is not only to continue the pilot of Praxis here at U.Va., but to work with a group of four or five other schools to form a Praxis network," she said. "The feeling is that we could learn a lot by sharing local practices and talking more about what we do."

The grant will also fund a series of high-level meetings between representatives of Humanities Centers and Institutes, a consortium of humanities-centered entities, and its digital counterpart, centerNet. This will explore the ways in which traditional and digital humanities scholarship will become more unified in the future, both in terms of scholarly work and graduate training, Nowviskie said.

"This is really critical because the employment picture for humanities scholars is changing radically," she said. "The need for them to build digital skills and to be equipped to engage more deeply with the transformation of the academy is crucial."

The Mellon funding will also allow the Scholarly Communications Institute to conduct a broad survey of humanities scholars who self-identify as working in alternative academic careers, or jobs that require advanced degrees and scholarly skills, but aren't necessarily on the traditional faculty tenure track.

"We really want to get at how they feel about the graduate-level preparation they had for the fields they work in now," Nowviskie said. The survey will likely begin in the fall, and will also ask about issues such as publication.

In addition, the grant extension will fund research into new-model scholarly authoring and production, as well as into philanthropy and humanities funding.

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Rob Seal

Director of Media Management and Managing Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications