September 28, 2011 — One recent afternoon, six University of Virginia graduate students with scholarly interests ranging from Victorian poetry to Spanish military architecture sat around a conference table in Alderman Library and discussed the finer points of a computer programming language called Ruby.
The students are part of the Praxis Program, a pilot initiative in the U.Va. Library's Scholars' Lab designed to provide technical training and experience to a small group of interdisciplinary graduate students interested in digital humanities projects.
"Our disciplines will become more digital as time progresses, and I think this is the right way to teach people about digital humanities," said Joanna Swafford, a doctoral student in English who is among the six students in the new year-long program. "I hope other universities will take note and implement similar programs at their own schools."
Specialists in the digital humanities – a broad term that applies to digital presentations of work ranging from archives of 19th-century scholarship to interactive maps of historical Jamaican architecture – have long identified a need to blend formal training with hands-on project experience, said Bethany Nowviskie, director of digital research and scholarship in the Scholars' Lab.
"The Praxis Program is a logical extension of that, and it responds to these sharp needs that everybody in the academy is talking about," Nowviskie said.
The program is designed to be interdisciplinary and, in future, multi-institutional, though five of the six pilot participants are graduate students in the English department in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
In the past, training for digital humanities projects was largely on-the-job, Nowviskie said. Scholars who wanted to build websites or online tools related to their work often knew very little beforehand about the technical process of building such sites, and might know nothing about creating software or using programming languages. Likewise, digital projects require what Nowviskie calls the "softer skills" of collaboration and project management.
"A lot of digital humanities projects fail because scholars haven't had an opportunity to learn these kinds of skills," Nowviskie said.
Students in the Praxis Program are essentially paid interns in the Scholars' Lab, except instead of working individually, they work on a group project. This year's team is developing an innovative online educational tool called Prism, which would 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.
The students work closely with Scholars' Lab staff for technical support and training, but they are largely directing their own project, in which students and staffers are equal collaborators, Nowviskie said. The students create the project charter and work together to write the software with the goal of creating a working Web-based program by the end of the year.
Edward Triplett, a doctoral student in the Graduate Program of History of Art and Architecture, said the practical nature of the program was attractive to him.
"There's a working product at the end of this process," he said. "That was really big for me."
Triplett, who said he is potentially interested in working in the emerging field of "alternative" academic careers outside of the tenure track, said being able to work on digital humanities projects is a valuable skill regardless of whether a student pursues a traditional tenure-track faculty job or another career path.
"You can bring digital humanities to wherever you end up," he said. "You can offer something to a college or university that maybe expands an interest it may already have."
Swafford, who is interested in a traditional academic career, said she was drawn to the program in part because the digital humanities offer a new platform for her scholarly interest in Victorian literature and how it relates to music.
"I had tried to make arguments about the role of music in literature in the past, and it's been confusing," she said. "It's difficult to do on paper. If you give someone a score and they don't have a background in music, it just doesn't mean anything to them. So I was drawn to digital humanities because I was trying to create a digital framework for my own interdisciplinary program."
Though Swafford worked on digital projects prior to beginning Praxis, she said it offers her a chance to develop her skills on the technical side.
"So far it's been working wonderfully," she said. "We've been reading on how to make a charter, how to negotiate what everyone's responsibility will be and talking about credit, as well as learning about the project and what they expect from us. The past two weeks we've been getting a crash course in Ruby programming, which has been a dream come true."
Prism grew from an idea that had been percolating among graduate students and faculty and staff at U.Va. for a few years, Nowviskie said. The details of the project are up to the students, but the basic idea is to create a Web application that would allow students or others to mark certain passages in a piece of text or literature. Participants could use a color-coding system to mark passages that relate to certain emotions or themes, and the results could be aggregated to show how groups of people responded to different parts of the text. Visualization and data-mining of the results could come next.
"You could have 30, 60 or 100 students do it at once," Nowviskie said. "Eventually, when you put those together, that's crowd-sourced interpretation. You can generate unique looks at how people interpret literary and cultural artifacts."
The project is also unfolding in public. The students are blogging about the project on the Scholars' Lab website and will start releasing portions of the source code as it is developed.
"It's completely unfiltered and out there for the world to see," Nowviskie said. "We don't know exactly what's going to happen, but our students are blogging, they are tweeting about their work. All of the exercises we're designing for them are going up online as soon as we write them. The course materials are going up week-by-week. Once we get to the point where we're actually building Prism, we'll do code releases, so people will see this thing in all of its buggy glory."