Collaborative Work Practices and DH Teams

Report by Gurpreet Singh, Lovely Professional University, Phagwara, India

I would like to write about my experience at the first DH summer school in Bern, and will be focusing on the theme for which I chose to attend the school in first place. In an effort to know and learn more about how to start a DH centre, as I had already proposed one at my university, it was DH and team building. At the verge of setting up a DH centre in my institution, my main concern was to learn from the experience people about how to go about it and then more importantly how to go on and build a team that can sustain and work for the betterment of the centre. Also as a part of plan to start a formal DH course and then a full program in Digital humanities, I was also interested in DH curriculum.

Workshop: Collaborative Work Practices in DH
So I choose to go to the workshop led by Ms. Lynne Siemens: Collaborative Work Practices in DH. The good thing, it started with what each of us participants expected from the workshop and then tried to answer many of those while delivering the workshop.

These included: How to form a team? What about Project Management? What sort of technology is required to support team? How to engage people in team activities? How effective communication across discipline can be made possible? How can new members be integrated in place of existing one while there is already an established team? How to scale to include new members? How to establish collaboration and culture of collaboration?

It started with the fact that the key consideration when one starts thinking about a DH team should be: What are the project’s research questions and objectives?
And then based on this one should look for the additional skills needed to achieve these and get the people who possess the required skills. Also the roles and relationship with the collaborators should be defined pretty early. These all are decided by the research question.

Though a time consuming task which involve scheduling, conflict management and co-ordination, working as a team has its benefits in distribution of responsibilities and work as well as getting new and diverse ideas, whether really a team is required or not is dictated by the research question and skill set required.

Points to keep in mind while selecting members for a team is if the individuals available possessing the required skill set are collaboration-ready or not. This is one of the high qualities, which must be possessed by any team member.

Now coming to actual work, a clear definition of responsibilities and roles should be made early in the project and there may be requirements for members for reasons other than research e.g. Funding proposals etc.

Another point that was of considerable note was project management not being considered by academia, except when there are considerable results and funding,

While going through it, I think the most important point was communication between the team members.

To recap: Conceive projects? Service. Develop prototype software? Service. Write successful grant proposals? Service. Write code? Service. Lead developers and designers? Service. Disseminate the results of the project? Service.Blog post by Sean Takats (CHNM)

Finally coming to actual formation of research team, it would involve four steps: Forming; Storming; Norming (guidelines, how is the team will work together, time to respond to emails, frequency of meetings/skype; authorships, clear indication about academic credits and authorship); Performing (things getting done; sometimes nothing gets done, loss of resources).

Though some or all steps may have to be repeated, but once a team works together and delivers, then it should be supported and sustained so as to save going through these phases and saving time. This can be achieved by ensuring performance, member satisfaction as well as stakeholder (funding agency) satisfaction. Two important features to this are: Trust & Communication.

This can only be achieved by: Plan in advance including good meals; Use multiple forms of communication; Create small successes upon which to build; Remember this takes time.

After all the talk about trust, communication and satisfaction, the few tools discussed to ensure these included: Basecamp; Google Docs; iCalander, and matching the people in terms of responsibility, availability, time, etc.

It ended by asking the interested participants to join a two week long course expanding on the contents of this workshop in DH summer school to be held in Leipzig, Germany at the end of July.

This workshop answered quite a few questions that I didn’t come with and also to some extent the ones that I had in mind while joining. The question that I still have to work on is how to convince the authorities to allow forming a new team in DH (especially when they don’t have clue as to what DH is?). The one clear thing that I was able to get out of the workshop was importance of communication and early setting of goals and responsibilities in the team. These two things are critical to the success of any project or team work. Clearly a good preparation, in terms of requirements, responsibilities and expectations, and open communication between the team members are the two very important points to keep in mind for successful and effective team.

Other Workshop Sessions
Second workshop by Prof. Susan Schreibman was on Text Analysis with online tools. There were some great tools explored and explained, but to my disappointment none seemed to work with any other script than Roman. So I think these are of not so much help to me, as I am looking for some tools (online or otherwise), which can help in text analysis for languages written in other scripts as well.

Third workshop by Frederic Kaplan titled Semantic Modeling for the Humanities: RDF and beyond, was the one which really gave me a lot to cheer about, as it gave me a kick start about some tools and techniques to accomplish the work which I am hoping to start working on and had no or little clue to existence of such things, though through lots of (ugly) acronyms: RDF, URI, OWL, SPARQL, SWRL, CIDOC-CRM.
Even there was hands-on exercise as well, but the information was too good for me. Though it got bit too much for me for a single lecture without break.

Overall my experience was good for these workshops and would have to say that I got around the same amount as I would have expected , may be not exactly the same as I had expected. I would like these workshops to be extended to at least three sessions per school. That would make these meaningful as well as fruitful.

Unconference Session: DH Team
One thing that came to me as surprise and quite handy one as well was the Unconference. I participated in two of these, again related to DH Team and starting up a new DH center. These were: DH Team and the division of labour & DH Curriculum.

The first one about DH team started with asking of question as to why the participants were in the session, which had varied reasons and at various states in DH team work stage, with some looking to gather a team (like me), others having large team with issues about coordinating the team, having small team with issues on managing the experts in the teams, and so on. The most important fact again was that crucial to success of any interdisciplinary team like DH are communication and early documentation of roles and responsibilities. At the same the discussion on balancing the need of freedom and having a common goal was very informative.

As the project management skills needed includes humanities, management, technology etc. So it is very difficult to find someone with all those skills. Solution is experience and delegation of responsibilities to others in the team.

Finally it ended with sharing of some useful links:
The digital humanities Q&A
Humanist Mailing list in DH
DH commons
TEI Manuscript Interest Group
French discussion list

Unconference Session: DH Curriculum
The second of the two unconference sessions that I attended was on DH curriculum. The question put forward by the participants were: How to teach DH ? What course would we have to attend during our studies to be good DHers today ? Bridging the gap : what content in courses? Should we teach DH as such or should we teach “digital” inside the disciplines ?

There were few good questions raised about the notions like: Computer scientists are problem solvers, not “just coders”! – Among participants, how many have taken a programme in DH? – There was actually only one participant in the room who had taken a course in DH, others had varied backgrounds. So it was discussed that focus while teaching should be on methodologies, way of thinking rather than use of specific tools as well as how technology impacts your research practices.

Finally some information about the required or existing resources was shared. These included: Slides of a DH 2012 talk on a DH reference curriculum (contains list of current DH standards); Digital humanities manual for dummies; Need for a guideline on what to learn.

In the end after writing about the workshops and discussions, something about the expectations and suggestions for next DHCH. The school had a very good mix of workshops and lectures, from which I think everyone was able to get what they would have expected. I personally would have liked to attend few more of the workshops but time did not permit. The only one problem and big one, I would say was the duration of summer school. I think it should have been at least one week if not more. For someone like me, travelling half way across the world to attend this school, it spent more time travelling than I did at the school.

Apart from the very good mix of lectures, workshops and un-conference sessions, it provided a great opportunity to meet with like-minded researchers as well as experienced pros in the field and learns about the possibilities and lines along which DH research can be taken further.