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Centers Are People

[This is a talk I gave in April 2012 at the Digital Humanities Summit sponsored by the Committee on Institutional Cooperation of the Big Ten Conference. I have modified the talk slightly to remove some remarks that were particularly focused on the local context of that meeting. This paper might be thought of as a companion piece to Centers of Attention, which I gave at Emory a couple of years ago, and which now appears in Hacking the Academy.]

I’ve been involved with digital humanities centers for close to twenty years, and have now held most of the positions that one can hold (short of actually directing one). I’ve been a graduate student staff member, a full-time software engineer, an outside consultant, and a Fellow. I’ve watched centers rise and fall, flourish and fade, but centers have always played a, well, central role in my scholarly life.

What have I concluded from this long involvement? I’ve concluded that centers are people.

Now, that’s a bad way to begin, because in addition to a rather unfortunate association with Soylent Green, it also suggests any number of corporate platitudes and bromides. “It’s really about the people,” we say — mainly as a way to thank them on those rare occasions when it seems appropriate to do so, or to emphasize that whatever terrifying bureaucracies might arise, this is still all about human beings and collaborations among them. It’s the sort of sentiment companies emblazon on t-shirts and coffee mugs. It’s the mantra of departments, which, despite their avowed commitment to people, continue to go by the degrading and dehumanizing title, “human resources.”

Do I seem to make light of this noble intention? I hope so. Because I rarely see efforts to create centers that proceed from the proposition that centers are about people.

I suspect that many of you are eager either to create a center or to raise the profile of an existing one. Centers, it may seem you, are exactly how you “get into dh.” I often hear resigned comments from faculty at other institutions who “don’t have a center,” weary and nervous confessions from those who are “working on getting a center,” and delighted cries of jubilation from people who finally, at long last, “have a center.” And I’m often invited to act as a consultant for groups at one or another stage of this process.

They invariably want to talk about money, and computers, and “infrastructure” — about the balance between research and service, the various reporting lines, the projects they might undertake, their position relative to other centers, grant funding, outreach, and furniture. Often, they are brought up short when I ask a question that seems to me a very logical one to ask (especially for a group that hopes to be “all about people”): Who here is doing digital humanities?

The answers are breathtaking. “Well, there are some people around who we think would be interested, but we haven’t really contacted them yet,” or “You know, it’s really spread across a few different departments, and we’re hoping use the center to bring them together.” Sometimes the answer is, “Um, us” (us being the two or three people to whom I posed the question). The credo, in other words, is that if we build it they will come. And while the movie from which that line comes is admittedly less risible than Soylent Green, the belief that having a server, a set of cubicles, and a sign will create that community is every bit as fatuous as the belief that if you create a baseball diamond, the 1919 White Sox will emerge from the surrounding corn field.

I cannot think of a successful digital humanities center — anywhere in the world — that did not begin with a bunch of people who had found each other through various means and who were committed to the bold and revolutionary project of talking to one another about their common interests. Over time, that had morphed into an even bolder and more revolutionary idea: the idea that perhaps they could work on something together (a thing that humanist scholars, who are both trained to be and rewarded for being solitaries, can find terribly difficult to do).

How much money do you need to start a center? Either none, or whatever the beer costs. What sort of infrastructure do you need? The laptops you already have, and the wireless on offer at Starbucks. What sort of service and outreach should you do? The kind that goes out and finds new members for this highly informal gathering of humanists — students, staff, librarians, faculty — who like to geek out together and drink.

Does this sound like too humble a start? This is the founding narrative of some of the largest and most influential centers in the history of the field. It is true that they will publicly credit the vision of a dean or some highly-placed administrator, but in back of that narrative is something much more fundamental and necessary.

Because while the digital divide is cause for great concern — and I agree fully with my colleague Will Thomas’s call for a return to issues of access and outreach — the principle miracle of our technology is that it allows people to punch way above their weight. Once upon a time, there were two students in a dorm who decided to make a list of what was on the World Wide Web. Once upon a time, there was a guy in a cafe who thought it would be cool to organize his t-shirt collection. Once upon a time, there was a person who thought the student directory at his university was lame. We are speaking, of course, of what would later become YaHoo, Flickr, and Facebook. Call me a naive, techno-utopian, but I continue to believe with all my might that two graduate students with a laptop could change the discourse of the humanities tomorrow.

I don’t want to say that everything magically falls into place once you have formed the basic community of people and ideas, but it’s staggering how all of the decisions which so obsess people trying to build a center follow logically and inexorably from the evolving needs and expanding vision of more-or-less informal gatherings of like-minded enthusiasts. “It would be nice if we had our own server.” “Come to think of it, it would be nice if we had a bigger table.” “I think we need a whiteboard.” “Should we go for that grant?” “Uh, I’m an English professor; how do you write a grant?” “Think of what we could do if we hired a programmer!” Before long, you’re trying to get some combination of the words “institute,” “digital,” “humanities,” “research,” “project,” “center,” “initiative,” and “scholarship” into an acronym that isn’t already taken.

At an event like this, we naturally imagine something like a “network of centers,” and while I applaud that idea, I suspect that in the short term, we probably don’t need a lot of support from deans and provosts focused on creating an “infrastructure,” because the community can create that network by itself. But once the wider network takes hold among a group of institutions, they will want a very large table, and a galactic whiteboard, and a big sign. And at that moment, senior administrators will have a clear and obvious role to play, because it will not be engaged in the terrifying prospect of creating something new, but of facilitating that which has already happened and which is already flourishing. They will then be eager to put their name on it, and we will gladly assent. We will also know the real story. Because honestly, it started in a bar.

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