On DH Work Load and Creativity

I shouldn’t be writing this. I should be commenting on student project proposals and working on an article that is three weeks overdue. And, that is exactly why I’m writing this.

Recently at RRCHNM we’ve been having a lot of discussion about why some of us offer much less in the way of public commentary on the field, our work, and the various and ongoing controversies, such as the relationship between “Maker DH” and “Theoretical DH.” As someone who is a little bit on the quiet side of this divide, I have been considering how I got there. It’s not as if I’m not deeply engaged in the work of DH–and here I mean Digital History, not Digital Humanities, because that is the primary work I do. In fact, I think that the deep engagement with work, DH and otherwise, is the reason for the quietude.

Let me explain.

As the director of the public projects division at RRCHNM, I am currently responsible for the forward progress of nine projects (soon to be ten — Thank you, NEH Division of Public Projects, for funding our mobile site on the history of the National Mall). That means nine work plans, nine sets of reporting requirements, and nine sets of deliverables. None of that work would be possible without the incredibly hard work of the twelve people who make up the public projects team (if you don’t know them yet, you should). Together, twelve months a year, we do the work of digital history, producing websites, software, implementation guides, and whitepapers. It is tremendously fulfilling work, but it is a lot. And there will be more since we are grant-writing non-stop (two major applications in the last 6 weeks).

Then, I have my own commitment to teaching, which is not part of my job at RRCHNM at all. For someone who is not a natural in the classroom, I love teaching. I love interacting with students and helping them develop the skills they need to pursue their own interests. That is why I have taught each semester for the last seven years. In addition, I usually find myself with a senior thesis or two to advise or a directed reading to oversee, or both. Again, this is tremendously fulfilling work, but it is a lot.

As for my own work, I have a book manuscript slowly grinding through the process of becoming one of those old-school traditional monographs. Since, my work on that is basically done (I hope), I am hatching another project in the back of my head. I’m reluctant to let it come to the foreground because I don’t really have the time to dedicate to it, and I could do without the distraction of a project that I can’t realistically pursue. And, then, there is the article for the edited collection that is three weeks overdue.

While this may sound like an extended whine about my work load or a covert call for help in learning how to say no, my real point here is to suggest that with all of these balls in the air, my brain doesn’t rest long enough for me to do nearly as much productive, innovative, and creative work as I would like. If I worked less, I would blog more. Sad, but true.

And I know that there are many many more like me–inside DH and out. One way I know is that we’re beginning to see more and more research telling us that we need to slow down in order to be more productive (See this article urging a return to the forty hour work week, or listen to Krista Tippet’s interview with neuroscientist Rex Jung).

So, as an experiment in April, I’m going to try to heed this advice to slow down some in hopes of thinking more, and being more creative.

Anyone care to join me?

(But, for now, I’m gonna go do that work for the kids….)


Comments 8

  • Hear Hear!

    Like the Slow Food Movement, I’d love to see a more active and mindful effort to slow down the pace of academic life, Slow Research. Alas, I’m not sure how to do it.
    As a graduate student entering into the dissertation phase, slowing down feels risky and potentially damaging. The flip side would be that (hopefully) slowing down would improve the quality of my output. The question then is how to catalyze a positive rather than negative feedback loop.

    This post reminds me of an article my students read at the beginning of the term:

    Levy, D. M. (2007). No time to think: Reflections on information technology and contemplative scholarship. Ethics and Information Technology, 9, 237–249.

  • Replying to this while sitting in my office (on an otherwise empty campus) on a Sunday afternoon, working on a work-work project with a looming deadline, and also plugging away at my own research. Sigh.

    But yesterday I was out on the ocean for four hours and cooked some creative-tasty food and spent time with a friend. So maybe for now I have to settle for one day of ‘rest’ per weekend?

  • Your work is your contribution to debates in the field. The amazing things that come out of your division, and the fact that you’re running 10 projects at a time, speak to the field.

    On a side note, thanks for this post, as you have accomplished things similar to my goals (I’d like to be producing my own traditional scholarly research, working a job at the intersection of academic/digital/public history, and even teaching, as well). Even at this early stage of my career I find myself struggling to balance what it takes to live out those goals. So this post is good to see, as a reminder to myself to slow down a bit, as I’ve felt overstretched (and I don’t do nearly as much as you).

    In the meanwhile keep up the good work–your contributions to the wider field!

  • […] prac­tice.2 This def­i­n­i­tion is of course uniquely rel­e­vant in the arena of DH, which grap­ples daily with the bal­ance of think­ing and doing. And behind all the recent fra­cas about the neces­sity of cod­ing (and its gen­der […]

  • This is an interesting post in light of David Levy’s dumb Washington Post article on how little professors work. (I refuse to dignify it with a link.) I’ve basically never met an academic at any level who wasn’t working flat-out and feeling over-committed and as though there aren’t enough minutes in the day, let alone hours, to get everything done. That applies to teaching faculty, research faculty, adjuncts, and grad students. It’s just that some, like you, are putting their efforts in more fertile ground than others are.

  • I totally agree, folks. I don’t know anyone who isn’t working hard, all the time. And, Matt, David, and Jana, I know that the hamster wheel feeling can be particularly bad in the late stages of graduate school when you’re juggling research, writing, a job, and family. I just hope that we all get some time at the ocean or putting in the miles, or whatever it is that gives our minds enough time to wander into some of the stuff that is necessary for good work.

  • Actually, the article I cited was by David M. Levy of University of Washington. The Washington Post article was by David C. Levy of the Cambridge Information Group.

    Funny collision of names, time, and contexts.

  • I write to thank you for this very helpful expression of a tension I have sensed as I acquaint myself with the new insurgency of the so-called “digital humanities.”

    As you may know, I’ve recently embarked on an analysis of the movement in my New York Times column (not to say, blog) and the fourth essay in the series — http://bit.ly/H4Suf4 — makes reference to your writings on exhaustion in what I am increasingly convinced may be characterized as a heartless field.

    Sincerely,
    Stanley Fish

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