“Project Management for Digital Humanities” workshop notes

Below are my notes from a Digital Humanities workshop I attended yesterday evening on project management. I was surprised by how specific and detailed the workshop was, and was encouraged to learn that the Digital Humanities are beginning to adapt the standards and language of business-oriented project management to suit the specific needs and aims of DH. Thank you to UNL Center for Digital Research in the Humanities’ (CDRH) Liz Lorang for putting this great workshop together.

Project Management for Digital Humanities


  • are unique/produce a unique result
  • have a defined scope
  • have a defined start and end
  • must be completed with set resources
  • useful to drive this^ definition home → can’t successfully manage the project if don’t have a clear, defined understanding of the above

Project management = “the application of strategies and methods to complete projects effectively and successfully”

  • a successful project…is completed on time and with the agreed upon resources; produces product deliverables and meets scope and quality requirements
  • NOT about exceeding expectations →if scope of project and expectations continue to expand, may not get the original project, idea completed
  • DHers working more in teams, need to be able to run projects effectively (esp. to get and justify funding)
    • when introducing more variables into a project, need a project manager to ensure project is progressing, goals are being met
    • projects are often looking for project managers → good way for graduate students to get good experience & translate this for your own projects
      • most often, the person behind the project idea = NOT the project manager
      • skills gap between DH folks who have great project ideas but don’t have time or resources to be able to do the management portion of this
  • there are many different types of project management
    • much of the language, materials on how-to manage projects = dealing with a specific business culture → not always related to DH concerns, standards, methods
    • e.g. “lean” project management = all about maximizing efficiency, use of resources, most “bang for the buck”
    • traditional, adaptive, discovery, extreme = the 4 primary types of project management
      • DH @ UNL sees quite a bit of traditional & adaptive
  • So what’s the right method?
    • goals, project activities → if BOTH = clearly defined, traditional = the way to go
      • if NOT clearly defined, adaptive may be more the way to go
    • not all projects will be managed the same way
    • across both methods (traditional, adaptive):
      • every project should have: defined goals, deliverables, scope, start & end dates, defined team & roles, defined stakeholders, defined resources
      • AND every project must include: initiating, planning, executing, monitoring/controlling, closing
      • BUT methods look different in practice
    • sometimes funding applications (e.g.) NEH funding application becomes the “founding document” BUT, often, things will change → and IF goals, definitions change, it is best for the sake of the project to write up all of the above^ very early on
  • traditional project management in practice = initiate → plan → execute → monitor → close
  • agile/iterative project management in practice = initiate → plan → execute → monitor → [repeat: plan → execute → monitor] → close
    • e.g. Whitman Archive standards need updated → need to explore first in order to determine what need to accomplish and how long it will take (won’t be a linear process: “code sprints” = work intensely on one problem for a week, then move on to the next problem)
    • e.g. DH practicum course being offered this semester: encourage students to set 3-hour goals as a way to begin exploring problems and risks, “real world” goals for solving problems
  • the CDRH uses a “charter form” for the initiate phase → Liz to share a copy with workshop attendees

Project charter:

  • Vision (Why? What question(s) are you answering?)
  • Mission (What?)
  • Success criteria (How will we know if the project is successful?)
  • Where and how the above^ is documented varies from one project to another, depending on who you work with, how big and/or formal the project team is
  • not the role of the project manager to create these things (although will be involved in this process), but need to be sure these things are articulated as early as possible
  • if mission/success criteria changes, need to determine the impact on the project → e.g. will the deadline(s) for the project, budget, goals also change?
  • more traditional models may also specify the following in their project charter:
    • sponsor & stakeholders
    • roles
    • assumptions & constraints working under
    • standards (e.g. thematic research collection, documenting what encoding standards you are using → this can be important to state in the early stages if, for example, you are farming out some of the work and/or if some members of the team don’t have a lot of technical knowledge)
    • budget (monetary as well as time budgets can be useful)
    • schedule (short-term project: month-by-month…)
    • milestones
  • really expansive project charters don’t tend to work well for academic projects
    • risk plan (known risks, possibilities for some unknowns – want to have contingency plans)
    • communication plan (sounds great in theory, but may not pan out in academic culture → various plans for breakdowns in communication) (BUT probably works well in class projects, when at a peer-level with members of the project)
    • work breakdown structure (often assume “chart-like” form, ascending/descending tasks, how tasks relate to one another, identify critical pathways, things that must be done in order for next step to be done)

Open discussion:

  • a lot of DH management is being done by women
  • Project Management Institute = basically has a monopoly on the certification in project management professional
    • DHSI & HILT have offered project management courses in the past BUT not yet wholly geared toward DH (still using a lot of approaches and language from business)
  • various types of software for delegating responsibilities?
    • Trac = used @ the CDRH for several projects & has worked well → can set milestones & see a roadmap
      • ALSO great way to keep track of who’s working on what (especially important for large projects), keep everyone updated on progress of project, document key decisions…
    • Asana = something one of the workshop attendees has used → it was “overkill”, things pile up, is very business-oriented
    • Basecamp = another option, not much experience using it in the room (it’s not open-access)
  • communications aspect may be one of the most difficult aspects of project management, especially when the project manager isn’t necessarily on equal footing with the members of the team

Back from the Bosch and back in the saddle again

Gene Autry, Back in the Saddle Again
Gene Autry, Back in the Saddle Again. Click and it’s in your head. You’re welcome.

Traveling for weeks at a time can be pretty disorienting. It takes you out of your normal routine, places you in unfamiliar situations, demands a lot of physical and emotional energy, generally means your free time is out the window, and can lead to a big game of catch up when you return home. All of this was true for my experience at the 2012 edition of the Bosch Archival Seminar for Young Historians, which I attended from September 2nd to the 16th, but I wouldn’t change a thing. The Bosch was an immensely valuable experience that I will carry with me throughout my academic career, and I’d like to use my next few posts to share some of the details, insight, and information I gained. To begin: what the seminar was about and a tour of the Manseuto Library at the University of Chicago.

The seminar is a yearly cooperative venture between the German Historical Institute (GHI), the University of Chicago’s Department of History, the Heidelberg Center for American Studies, and the Robert Bosch Foundation. The 2012 iteration of the seminar brought together doctoral students from a wide variety of backgrounds with the aim of (1) encouraging transnational collaboration and (2) providing participants with an “inside” look at how an array of historical institutions function and are organized. The seminar was led by Dr. Misha Honeck, a Research Fellow at the GHI, whose hard work and enthusiasm kept us all afloat as we made our way through libraries, archives, and museums in Chicago, Madison, Boston, and Washington, D.C. One of our first official stops after becoming acquainted with one another and allowing the international scholars to shake off some of their jetlag was the Mansueto Library.

One of the highlights of the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library (aside from its swank architecture) is its automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS). 

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Not only is this system very impressive from a technological standpoint; it’s also a prominent experiment in ways libraries and archives can confront the problems of preservation and storage while still providing scholars ready access to research materials. The ASRS allows the Mansueto Library’s patrons to access materials much more quickly than they would be able to at a library or archive that has been forced, for spatial or financial reasons, to store some of its collections offsite. While a request for materials can take days at an institution with offsite storage, it usually takes about 15 minutes or less at the Mansueto. As impressive as the ASRS is though, both it and offsite storage pose browsability problems for patrons. Whenever direct access to the materials is cut off, serendipitous discoveries and connections made via “wandering the stacks” become endangered. A “nearby on the shelf” button in the catalog search results makes up for part of this experience, but not all of it. Still, it was exciting to see the Mansueto’s work to confront a significant problem facing many historical institutions today.

In my next post, I’ll discuss our Bosch group’s thesis workshop and our day with the archivists and curators of the Newberry Library.

Taking the time to be involved

Hubble ultra deep field scanThe most esteemed Captain James Tiberius Kirk once said, “If something’s important, you make the time.” This quote stuck in my mind from the first time I heard it, and not simply because I belong to that cadre of academics who possess an affinity for most things Star Trek. No, high correlation between academia and trek-philia aside, I appreciate the sentiment that in spite of whatever else one has going on in one’s life, there are some things that one simply must make time for–either because they are just that important or because they are, in the long run, good for one.  This might also be understood as keeping an eye on the “bigger picture” and understanding that there are things in life that are larger and more significant than one’s own (selfish) needs and worries. In my experience it is often the larger, the more significant-than-thyself things that actually help me push through challenges and day-to-day problems. Knowing that I’m helping myself in the long run doesn’t hurt either. Taking the time to be involved can be difficult for the ever-busy graduate student, but it’s ultimately a game in which there are no losers. Being involved will not only help you stay sane; it’s also a very useful tool for gaining the sorts of skills and connections that improve your prospects on the job market.

There are several reasons I’m so pushy on this issue. Having spent most of my undergraduate career not being involved in any sort of service work–academic or otherwise–I speak from experience when I say that being involved pays off. As an undergraduate I paid my own way. My family did not possess the means to contribute to–let alone support–my college education, so I did it myself. I was fortunate enough to have access to the wonderful (pre-Bush level) federal Pell grants and I won a few scholarships here and there. But I also typically worked no less than two jobs simultaneously (at times it was three) while I attended school full-time and lived on my own. It used to drive me insane when I would overhear fellow classmates complain about the amount of homework they had to do, even as they admitted to not working, living at home, and sleeping in long hours every weekend. Fear of living in poverty the rest of my life served as one heck of a motivator, but so did my knowledge that I was extremely lucky to be receiving a college education at all and that my family was very proud of me for all of the work I was doing. Whenever I would get down about having to work 35, 40 or even 62 hours per week and still make time to write that paper or study for that exam, I would think about how great it would be to not have to live paycheck to paycheck and how I could–perhaps one day–even have the kind of job that would not only allow me to support myself but also help members of my family make ends meet. During those years, it was my involvement with family and appreciation of what a college education could mean for both me and them that helped me push through.

Much to my amazement I not only made it to graduate school, but was also financially able to attend thanks to a graduate assistantship with the Office of Academic Support and Intercultural Services (OASIS) at UNL’s Culture Center. My year at OASIS was crucial to my adjustment to my new status as a graduate student. Working with undergraduates who were also first-generation and from low-income backgrounds helped ease my culture shock by opening the door to an entire community of peers who faced many of the same issues I did. And, although I am an introvert at heart, I also forced myself to step up and join UNL’s History Graduate Students’ Association (HGSA). I quickly began to experience the many advantages of being involved in organizational service work while in grad school. Here are my top three reasons for promoting grad student involvement:

  1. It will pay off in the long run. This should appeal to both the humanistic and the selfish regions of your noodle. By being involved in a community of peers and volunteering your time to perform service work for the good of the whole organization you are simultaneously furthering your own interests. You are gaining experience balancing the various aspects of your life with the responsibilities of being a hard-working adult. You are collaborating, working, and communicating with others in ways that will help you forge the social connections and people skills that will serve you well throughout the rest of your life. You are demonstrating to your peers, mentors, and potential employers that you are not only capable but willing and ready to take the initiative, collaborate, and lead by example. This should make for at least a few good lines on your c.v., not to mention bragging rights about being all Spock-like by putting the good of the many above the good of the one or the few and what not.
  2. Wherever your career takes you, being involved will be key to your success. No one is going to hire you to sit in a corner all day grumbling to yourself about all the work you have to do. The jobs of the future are jobs in which the best individuals–and hence the best employees–are those who collaborate with others to the benefit of all. The sooner you start developing and practicing the kinds of skills and habits that you’ll need to obtain your dream job, the better. Like it or not, you will be competing with those of us who are involved and we’ll have all those extra lines on our vitae and pumped up reference letters to prove it. (Revisit point number one if you need more motivation.)
  3. It’s called part of being a decent human being. No moral judgment intended here but really–human society didn’t get where it is today by way of selfish individualism. You think those cave-babies made it to puberty on their own? No, they lived long enough to become your ancestors because their tribes (i.e. an aggregate of human critters working together) devised ways to shelter, protect, and provide for themselves as a unit. Surely, now and then a cave girl or boy needed time to themselves or held a few berries back as a special bedtime snack, but the point is that cooperation has done some serious good for humanity over the years. It wouldn’t hurt if we all took a turn.