Design for Diversity: Social Knowledge Creation in the Digital Humanities

Cara Marta Messina, Sarah Connell, Julia Flanders, Caroline Klibanoff, and Sarah Payne have all co-authored a book chapter on social knowledge creation in the digital humanities, using the Design for Diversity project as one of their case studies. The chapter is slated for publication in 2020 in the series Social Knowledge in the Humanities, published through the Iter Press. Volume one of the series has already been published online:

We can now share the chapter’s introduction, and please keep an eye out for its full publication in later 2020.

The peculiar professional and organizational space of the “digital humanities centre” has been much studied in recent years, with a focus on how such centres are managed and funded, where they are situated institutionally, and what their role in the digital research ecology is or should be. More recently, as such spaces are becoming commonplace and well-naturalized as part of the humanities ecology, they are being called upon to host the experiments of that ecology: crossovers and partnerships between pedagogy, tool-build- ing, research, public outreach, and mentoring. In this article, we focus on Northeastern University’s Digital Scholarship Group (DSG) as an exemplar of this organizational genre, to explore the role that social knowledge creation plays both in the group’s own regular operations and in its function within the institution. 

DSG is in many ways typical of the “digital humanities centre” or “digital scholarship group,” as characterized in surveys such as Diane Zorich’s 2008 study or Nancy Maron and Sarah Pickle’s 2014 report on “Sustaining the Digital Humanities.” It is an applied research group located (as is now common) within a library, and it builds on the library’s established role in gathering, synthesizing, and disseminating knowledge, while helping to move work even further in social directions through activities such as transcribathons, Wikipedia editathons, and crowd-sourced data-gathering and enhancement. DSG also has an increasing pedagogical role as the university explores experiential education at the graduate level, focused on digital humanities. And, like many digital scholarship centres, DSG has primary responsibility for developing and maintaining expertise and core infrastructure for build- ing, supporting, and publishing digital research projects. Social knowledge creation is thus built into the group’s foundational activities at a deep level. 

What do we mean by “social knowledge creation”? Previous studies using the term have focused on formal processes of scholarly communication such as scholarly editing, peer review, and open access publishing.1 Our focus in this article is on both “social knowledge” and “social creation”: on the ways in which shared knowledge emerges through specific working processes that include not just shared decision-making or planning, but also longer-term processes of communication and trust-building that play out over time and create durable ecologies with wide-ranging effects. We are interested in how knowledge is instantiated in humans and human processes as well as in documents, and we consider a wide variety of documents that include not only artefacts recognizable as “scholarship” but also documentation, discus- sions in workplace chat forums such as Slack, project blog posts, and shared note-taking. This article is itself an exemplar: it was collaboratively writ- ten by a team that includes the DSG director, other DSG staff, and graduate students with roles in DSG’s regular work and grant-funded projects. The writing process involved interviewing each member to elicit insights about the project case studies, followed by a shared drafting and revision process. The “we” that speaks here is a collective voice, but at various points it draws on individual perspectives. 

This article is broken into four case studies that model the work processes of the DSG: the writing of this article, the CERES toolkit, the Design for Diver- sity initiative, and finally the Intertextual Networks project. A few particular themes run through these reflections. Process matters a great deal (as the phrase “knowledge creation” reminds us), and we seek to document specific work processes that influence how students and faculty learn to take on varied roles and forms of expertise. Mentorship also matters tremendously, but that term describes a broad spectrum of relationships and actions: what forms of mentorship genuinely empower students, help to build trust, and create space for them to operate as true collaborators? Finally, we are concerned with the ways in which these kinds of digital projects ask us to be attentive to terms such as “scholarship” and “work” (terms which come from the two different professional frameworks that intersect at the DSG), and to avoid distinctions that devalue some kinds of labour and elevate others. These case studies illustrate how effective social knowledge creation is supported by forms of professional credit and responsibility; the creation of collegial working relationships between students, faculty, and staff; and even the use of physical space.”

  1. For example, Daniel Powell’s 2016 University of Victoria dissertation, “Social Knowledge Creation and Emergent Digital Research Infrastructure for Early Modern Studies,” looks in particular at digital infrastructure for scholarly editing and scholarly communication; the description of the previous volume in this series highlights “peer-review, open access publishing, tenure and promotion, mentorship, teaching, collaboration, and interdisciplinarity.” See Arbuckle, Mauro, and Powell 2017.