RA Interviews: Experiential Learning and The Stainforth Project

Because I have been so lucky to employ fantastic researchers here at Dartmouth and at CU-Boulder to work on the Stainforth Library of Women’s Writing, Dartmouth’s Digital Humanities librarians asked me to present on experiential learning in DH. As a doctoral student, I was also paid to work on a professor’s DH projects that were underway: Laura Mandell’s Poetess Archive and The Letters of Robert Bloomfield.

While I can talk about being project director and setting up the infrastructure for experiential learning, details about the outcomes of experiential learning are best gleaned from our researchers, past and present, in their interviews below. Passages that I find useful for today’s event I highlighted in blue.

Current Stainforth Researchers

Cayla Eagon (PhD Candidate in English, CU-Boulder)

1. What does experiential learning on a DH project mean to you?
Experiential learning on a DH project means gaining hands-on experience with technical tasks, transcription, editing, data entry, and research that I can apply to future DH projects, assignments for my students, and, potentially, alt-ac careers.

2. What did you learn experientially from the project’s topic regarding (for example):
I’ve learned about several women writers that I had never heard of before. I also learned new things about writers I had heard of—for instance, before this project I had no idea that Elizabeth Acton wrote a cookbook!

– about Stainforth’s library (genre, format, date ranges, organization, his albums with portraits of women in them, etc):
I’ve learned new things about publishing practices from the 18th and 19th centuries. For instance, I learned what [literary] annuals are. I also gained a much better understanding of how popular writings were reproduced in multiple editions, sometimes at a high frequency. Based on these multiple editions, I also learned who some of the most popular women writers were (and who they weren’t).

– about the manuscript we have been working on for so long (acquisitions and wants lists, 19c writing, organization, transcription, editing, unclear entires, complexities of entries, number of authors and titles, etc.)
My transcribing skills have definitely improved. I’ve also learned how useful crowd-sourcing (especially Twitter) can be when working on transcription projects. I also learned that there will always be mistakes, so you should be comfortable double and triple checking your work and asking others to check your work too. 

– anything else? I’ve learned how to better communicate with colleagues via electronic communication, and also how to be very clear and explicit in explaining dense data questions and problems.

3. What did you learn experientially about the nature of DH projects (for example):
– DH project management, in particular

A good leader is important! And a leader who is willing to jump in and do any task (no matter how small) and answer any question and provide detailed examples is really key to productivity. I can’t imagine doing this project without Kirstyn.

– DH project collaborative work between the library and departments? between the collaborating editors? btw the editorial team and the project director? btw the collaborators and the technical support of the institution? For Maria: between collaborators at different institutions?
Effective and timely communication is extremely important! Communicating electronically can be difficult when you have to explain complex ideas. Organizing your thoughts and presenting them clearly is essential to effective communication. It’s also important to build rapport and have fun with your colleagues, even if you rarely or never see them face-to-face. Also, appreciate your colleagues—it makes everyone feel good. When your colleagues say “thank you” or “good job,” it makes the hard work worthwhile. Meeting in person really does make a difference in the kinds of productivity you can have.

– the challenges of interdisciplinary work

It’s important to admit what you don’t know and ask help and equally important not to just assume that your colleagues know the same things you know. I find interdisciplinary work a great opportunity for learning new things.

– trouble shooting and the things that did not work

Don’t get discouraged. Things will go wrong. Consider them learning experiences and move on.

4. What were you hoping to learn when you joined the project? 
I was hoping to learn more about the women writers in this catalog as well as what a DH project looks like and how it works. So far, I’ve learned these things and a lot more.

5. What did you leave the project wanting to do more of or learn more about? 
Honestly, I love transcribing manuscripts. I’d love to do more of this kind of work in the future. Also, I really like working with a team remotely. I think distance forces you to have make more effort in actively interacting with your co-workers, and, in my experience with this project, that effort has been fun and rewarding.

6. If you’re now working on other DH projects, are there skills or experiences from the Stainforth project that transfer to your other projects? 
I’m not working on another DH project right now, but I am confident that I will use many of the skills I described above on a DH project in the future.

 

Michael Harris (Lecturer, CU Boulder Libraries; PhD in Music, CU-B)

1.What does experiential learning on a DH project mean to you? 
I have never actually heard this term before, but using all my PhD-ness, I can gather that it means “to learn by experiencing” or something like that. The power of DH projects seems to be rooted in having students interact with documents more directly than with just text books. They examine, go down rabbit holes, and see a topic almost from the inside out. It seems that DH projects, at least ones with a historical bent, are similar to the trends of microhistory. To examine just a small sliver of history, but use that to then build out larger concepts. While microhistory seems to be more temporally focused (examining just a small period of time, like a decade or so), something like Stainforth uses a single person to build out concepts surrounding him and his collection.
2. What did you learn experientially from the project’s topic (i.e., Stainforth’s library):
I don’t know about learned, but more like asking questions that open up interesting avenues of thought. Such as “why” he was such a collector of things?  Why women writers? What can we say about his library and his organizational scheme (I WILL figure it out…I can’t wait to see the database and what it spits back out. Having learned about classification schemes now, I really want to dig into it), especially right as library culture was on the verge of changing in the mid to late 19th century. Of course, I view these questions from my own interests, but that is the beauty of Stainforth. It is focused enough to be manageable from a project standpoint, but also is a collection that can be viewed from so many different angles.

3. What did you learn experientially about the nature of DH projects:
So much! Starting with “What the f$^) is digital humanities (I was a complete novice), to how to manage a project. And now, as an LIS student, I have put these skills to work with group projects plus seeing how my studies can benefit Stainforth and inform my own future projects that I want to take on. The collaboration of DH and Libraries are going to be key going forward as we redefine the very nature of what the humanities and libraries do! Making our research and collections and the research from them accessible is going to be a key promotional tool in our era of bottom line budgeting (as sad as that is).

4. What were you hoping to learn when you joined the project?
I had no preconceived notions of learning anything.  Which made it all the more wonderful when I did learn so much!

5. What did you leave the project wanting to do more of or learn more about? (Correction: you never really left, you just got busier with library school.)

How to collect and manage data and metadata and how to build databases. The former of which I also learned about this semester in library school, the latter of which I will be learning this summer.

6. If you’re now working on other DH projects, are there skills or experiences from the Stainforth project that transfer to your other projects?
There is a project that I am looking to start working on soon that might be a LIS school project, or just my own thing (though I hope to gain institutional support down the line if it grows large enough).  It started as an idea and I hope it to become that project of mine that will be a calling card in the library world and job market.  While I won’t go into detail here on the specifics, it is a project that when I mention it to colleagues in the field it deals with, they are all very excited about the prospects for it, and how I am approaching it is greatly informed by Stainforth.  By the careful planning of what data I want to collect, how to encode/tag it, to what I want to be able to do with said data.  Not to mention how to work with a team.  I am grateful for the experiences of the Stainforth project has given me, as I seem them as exceptionally valuable to my future career.

Alumni Researchers

Kyle Bickoff (PhD Candidate in English, U Maryland [College Park]; MA, CU-Boulder)

Experiential learning, or something I more often refer to as practice-based research, is something that Digital Humanities excels at, and something that has always attracted me to the field.
While I certainly feel that I learned about Stainforth’s collection of texts by women writers, for me the process of transcription and of taking part in the organizational process of text, sorting, writing, rewriting, and doing some (straightforward) encoding of the text is the most informative. It not only helps me to attend closely to the intricacies and quirks of the writer, but it also forces me to think through the author’s organizational system and understand the original methodologies in relation to the methodologies of the present.
The knowledge I gained from the Stainforth project is knowledge I use everyday, and which I consider cumulative knowledge. My work on Stainforth, which I did during my Master’s program, built on other experiences at that same time including work at the University of Colorado Archives and the Media Archaeology Lab. This training informs my own work in the present during my Doctoral work, and will continue to inform my work on Digital Humanities projects in the future–of that I am sure.

Deven Parker (PhD Candidate in English, CU-Boulder)

1. What does experiential learning on a DH project mean to you? Experiential learning on a DH project involves the acquisition of both technical skills and new knowledge by immediately putting those skill to practice on a collaborative project. In other words, knowledge about DH methods and the specific content of the project comes not from reading or independent research – in a straightforward consumptive sense (as in, reading a DH methods and theories book), but from first hand practice and experience that involves much trial and error. While working on the Stainforth Project, I found that I learned the most in moments where something went wrong – if I couldn’t decipher or figure out how to transcribe a certain symbol in the manuscript, for example. In moments like this, the team and I were forced to reconsider and adapt our methods and practices according to new challenges presented by the content. These moments of problem solving were by far the most challenging and rewarding. 
2. What did you learn experientially from the project’s topic regarding (for example):
– women writers: It may sound naive, but the Stainforth Project taught me to reconsider the incorrect notion that men dominated the 17th-19th century publishing world. I’m increasingly frustrated by the narrow canon of “women’s writing” that sometimes appear on college syllabi, and the notion that women constituted a homogenous minority group in the literary world. The sheer range and quantity of women’s publications in Stainforth’s catalogue challenged my assumptions about this supposed minority category. 
 
– Stainforth’s library (genre, format, date ranges, organization, his albums with portraits of women in them, etc): Regarding this topic, I learned simply that there is no standard way to organize an archive of information. It’s incorrect to assume that all archives are organized equally. Also that the organization of the archive is always determined by the organizer(s)’ goal of what kind of knowledge he or she wants to produce. 
 
– the manuscript we have been working on for so long (acquisitions and wants lists, 19c writing, organization, transcription, editing, unclear entires, complexities of entries, number of authors and titles, etc.): That even in Stainforth’s pre-digital c19th time, there were still ways to organize information according to coherent, systematic methods, like the one Stainforth developed. Once I learned to decipher his “code” (i.e., various shorthand and symbols), I felt like I’d learned a new language. 
3. What did you learn experientially about the nature of DH projects (for example):
– project management in general: Adapt and change as you encounter problems. These collaborative moments are the best part of the experience. 
– the digital humanities, in general: Collaboration rules. Thank god we finally have a field in the humanities that embraces and accepts it. 
 
– DH project collaborative work: Librarians and graduate students need to collaborate more often! Librarians have an amazing set of esoteric skills that we rarely teach in PhD programs these days. They’re also wonderful people. 
– anything else: I learned a lot about the limits and challenges of personal time management. I think that if departments want graduate students to be involved in collaborative DH projects like Stainforth, teaching loads and other labor must be adjusted accordingly. I simply couldn’t balance the demands of being a first time graduate instructor (teaching a 2-2) and keep up with my Stainforth work. I had to reluctantly withdraw from the latter. It’s important to remember that DH work constitutes real labor, not some kind of extracurricular hobby (as my specific department seemed to think). 
4. What were you hoping to learn when you joined the project? What it meant to be involved in a DH project, what DH was, and how to better collaborate with others. 
5. What did you leave the project wanting to do more of or learn more about? Work on another or similar project in addition to my dissertation research. And increase my students’ and colleagues’ awareness about the prominence of women writers from the 17th to 19th centuries. 
6. If you’re now working on other DH projects, are there skills or experiences from the Stainforth project that transfer to your other projects? I’m not sure I’d call it DH per se, but I’m working with instructional designers to design an online Shakespeare class for the fall. My collaborative skills from Stainforth certainly carry over to this. I’ve also experienced many of the same feelings of frustration when something goes wrong (much like Stainforth). Stainforth taught me to embrace these moments of uncertainty and glitch in the hopes that they will lead to more knowledge and a better overall method. 

Maria Semmens (MA Candidate, MALS, Dartmouth)

1. What does experiential learning on a DH project mean to you?

Most simply, I view it as learning by doing. It’s easy to sit in a classroom and learn techniques that allow you to corral data so that it’s easily digestible, but it doesn’t always translate when faced with said data. I think that I was lucky to have hands-on training with this particular DH project because I really did learn through praxis. 

I learned to not “trust” information as it is presented. In saying that I mean, it would have been very easy to make assumptions regarding the way Stainforth organized his collected works. However, the data that we saw was not always indicative of what we perceived it to be—based on our own contextual understandings. We were operating from a pedagogical present, so to speak, while simultaneously analyzing Stainforth’s content from a perspective that would be more aligned to his. The Stainforth project called for constant awareness of both the historical past and present.
2. What did you learn experientially about the nature of DH projects:
I learned the importance of having consistent team communication as it was the absolute key to making sure that all who were involved with the project were working appropriately. Having served as a remote member of the team myself, I can say that if we did not have a good communication system in place that we would have hit many roadblocks, such as inconsistent transcriptions, superfluous editing, tagging, etc., and a general unawareness of where the team/project is “at” at any given moment [since it is in a continual evolving state]. This would have been severely problematic in terms of keeping up on project deadlines—which need to be met in order to sustain the vitality of the project.
Since my academic path has always been interdisciplinary I was accustomed to the convergence of technologies and humanities. Collaborating with team members from other institutions was great! I thought that each one of us, through our varying institutional backgrounds/programs/degrees imbued the project with unique and valuable outlooks. Our individual modes of analysis and data comprehension, though contrasting, created great brainstorming opportunities—which in turn helped when troubleshooting tricky Stainforth-isms.
3. What were you hoping to learn when you joined the project? 
I was hoping to gain experience both with hands on research and back-end editing [xml]. The project was also very interesting to me personally as I earned my BA in Women’s & Gender Studies.
4. What did you leave the project wanting to do more of or learn more about?
I would have loved to learn more about the data construction and processing areas of the project. I really enjoyed brainstorming with the team to produce viable methods of streamlining our transcriptions and the way we tackled editing data across various “sheets” in order to maintain consistency. 
5. If you’re now working on other DH projects, are there skills or experiences from the Stainforth project that transfer to your other projects? 
I’m not working on a DH project now but I would say that I definitely learned how to navigate working on a team as a remote member in a different timezone successfully. I feel that we communicated very effectively given the various schedules and tasks each of us were given. 
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