NSS Notes on a Discussion with Jeffrey Schnapp, Harvard Metalab

This is the last of four blog posts on the New Scholars’ Seminar (NSS) sponsored by centerNet, CHCI, and the University of Western Sydney (UWS).  It took place at UWS just preceding the DH2015 conference.

On the morning of June 30, 2015, the seminar organizers presented three special guests to the participants, Charles van den Heuvel of Utrecht University; Jeffrey Schnapp of Harvard University, who would the next day offer the opening plenary for the DH2015 conference; Melissa Terras of University College London; and Willard McCarty of the University of Western Sydney.  All of the guests were notably honest with this group of young scholars about the challenges that lie ahead for them as digital humanists.  When specifically asked in the Q&A wrap-up session, they frankly told details of failures as well as successes, sharing lessons learned and offering help and encouragement.

After the panel presentations, the audience broke up into groups for more informal discussions.  Your reporter joined the group conversing with Jeffrey Schnapp.  Here are some quotable words of wisdom, which I would have Tweeted if the wireless connection had blinked on more often.  (For Tweets from the NSS, see #nssdh15, and also #nssdh2015.)

“I’m working on ways of creating a practice-based lab experience that is well bounded and distinctive to the humanities . . . I’m obsessed with activating the power of collections.  There is a tremendous charisma to this world of objects.  The digital is not in opposition to this at all.  The challenge is to connect the two.” 

He described the origins of what is now called the Library Test Kitchen:  “There is anxiety in the library world about the future of libraries. . . .  The idea was a space that would be propositional, for librarians, architects, makers.  To think out things libraries could contain in the future, practices to adopt, high-level policies or ideas we could put up for debate.”

On teaching in experimental ways:  “I teach a combination of class and fabrication, folding paper.  It’s an engaging way to get students activated.  You don’t postpone that moment in which everyone is making something.  You are already practicing right from the start, rather than the idea that it takes years to learn something. . . . it’s an apprenticeship model to training.  People’s learning styles are heterogeneous.  A model where you learn through practice and observation.  Learn how a master practitioner operates.  I as restless scholar I like to do things I don’t know.”

Jeffrey advocated for an entrepreneurial way of working:  “Sometimes it’s important not to ask for permission.”  But he generally steers clear of business-oriented projects.  “We want to be the prototyping place, not the software company that is worrying about version control.”

Regarding the direction of focus for digital humanities, he is especially interested in cultural heritage projects.  “I’m obsessed with activating the power of collections.  There is a tremendous charisma to this world of objects.  The digital is not in opposition to this at all.  The challenge is to connect the two.”

He has included experimental publishing in several of his projects.  “Let’s make scholarly communication the way we want it to be,” he advocated, describing books such as Crowds that were part of larger digital projects. “We’re in very productive moment.  Go to printed-matter fairs.  You will see fantastic work around what books can be in the design community.  Start talking to the design community. . . .  There are scenarios that involve convergence in what print can do.  As scholars we need to get involved in those practices, modeling them, experimenting with them. . . . Scholarly monographs were not always the gold standard.  Challenge publishing by creating other genres.  We need to be the people who invent those genres.” 

On collaboration:  “If you take on big and difficult things, there is plenty of space for multiple authors.  If you are taking on a set of challenges, we should not be anxious about attribution.  In cinema, you have set of roles.  Books are always expressions of community of some kind.  We have these myths of sole authorship.  . . . Collaboration undergirds all forms of knowledge production.”

“We have to model the future we want.  We can’t just talk about it theoretically.”