U.Va. Digital Humanities Training Program Establishes New Network

March 28, 2013

An innovative digital humanities training program for graduate students at the University of Virginia has helped spawn a new international network of programs that prepare humanities students for careers within and beyond the traditional academic job market.

The Praxis Network, which debuted last week, consists of graduate and undergraduate programs at several colleges and universities, each of which embraces new models of methodological training and collaborative research.

The network includes U.Va.’s Praxis Program, administered by the Scholars’ Lab in the U.Va. Library, as well as graduate programs at the City University of New York Graduate Center, Duke University, Michigan State University and University College London. It also includes undergraduate programs at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., and Hope College in Holland, Mich.

“We wanted to bring together a series of differently inflected programs that are all thinking about ways to equip humanities scholars for different career outcomes, but without sacrificing the core values of the field,” said Katina Rogers, a senior research specialist with the U.Va. Library-based Scholarly Communication Institute, or SCI, which established the Praxis Network.

The network’s primary audience is university faculty and administrators who may be interested in changing the way they approach graduate education in the humanities, but are either uncertain of how to proceed or are looking for information on what is working elsewhere, Rogers said.

SCI, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, recently conducted a survey of people with advanced humanities degrees working in so-called “alternative academic” careers, or academic jobs off the tenure track, which could include non-traditional appointments and staff positions. 

“We wanted to get a sense of the skills they are using compared to the skills they developed within their graduate programs, and get an idea of how their expectations matched reality,” Rogers said.

Many of the nearly 800 respondents reported that they didn’t feel their graduate programs had adequately prepared them for their current jobs, and that they needed skills in project management, collaboration and other aspects of modern office culture that weren’t honed during their often-solitary graduate studies, Rogers said.

A smaller companion survey that targeted the employers of people with advanced humanities degrees corroborated those findings, she said. The Praxis Network grew from a desire to identify those programs that are doing something different.

At U.Va., the Praxis Program, for which the network was named, is designed to provide technical training and experience to a small group of interdisciplinary graduate students interested in digital humanities projects. The graduate students meet weekly and collaborate on a shared humanities technology project.

Last year, the Mellon Foundation extended the grant that funds the Praxis Program and organizers cited the possibility of expanding the program.

“We’re thrilled that our local Praxis Program could be the originating node of this wider network,” said Bethany Nowviskie, director of digital research and scholarship at the U.Va. Library. “When we launched Praxis in the Scholars’ Lab in 2011, one of our core principles was that we share our unpolished work-in-progress every step of the way. This prompted lots of inquiries from other institutions – from deans, provosts and center directors looking for models to emulate.

“One thing I kept saying was that the Praxis Program grew organically and was, in many ways, quintessentially U.Va. It would be hard to pick up and plop down in a different university.”

Though the programs in the network are each unique, they share some common traits, such as a focus on practical skill training, collaboration and an interdisciplinary nature. The programs are “like-minded enough to be coherent, but structured differently enough to be interesting,” Nowviskie said.

“The site’s mix-and-match approach is an attempt to expand our administrative thinking about humanities education, particularly at the graduate level,” she said. “How can we provide new experiences and open up new paths for humanities grad students in the digital age?”

The Scholars’ Lab will soon open 2013-14 applications for both the Praxis Program and its graduate fellowship in digital humanities. It’s also hiring a new head of graduate programs. More information is available on its website.

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Rob Seal

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