Labour Issues in Humanities Computing
Michigan State University
Keywords: labour, resources, management
Computing humanists often point to the potential of information technologies in academia by citing the emerging roles of scholars as creators and maintainers of vast, digital archives, as facilitators of communication amongst other scholars, and as innovators in the use of technology in the teaching process. A central question remains, however: how exactly is all this work to be accomplished? Labour issues are a key factor in the rate of the integration of information technologies into humanities teaching and research. This series of papers explores three aspects of the managing of labour in humanities computing: the administration of a large, online distributed project involving humanities e-mail lists; the creation of quality electronic texts; and the establishment of professional support for discipline-specific humanities computing. David Halsted details the management strategies effectively used by H-Net, a project consisting of over 75 academic e-mail lists and an official web site, and centrally administrated at Michigan State University. Perry Willett describes the challenges of creating a collection of electronic texts for the Victorian Women Writers Project at Indiana University. Andrea Austin discusses hiring trends and support models that respond to the increasingly specialized computing needs of separate disciplines within the humanities. Particularly in the current climate of fiscal restraint, solutions to problems of labour in humanities computing are critical; these three papers, each from within a different specific context, describe significant labour problems and present possible solutions.
Managing Labor and Managing Management in a Distributed Online Humanities Project: The H-Net Experience
H-Net is a large online Humanities project with a highly distributed structure. Our 75 academic e-mail lists reach over 54,000 subscribers around the globe, and our Web site was receiving 200,000 hits weekly as of late September 1996. H-Net's lists are edited by 250 volunteer academics from all over the world. Policy is set by the H-Net Executive Committee, which meets primarily by e-mail; the Executive Committee is elected by H-Net editors and staff. Labor, administration, list maintenance and Web site design and maintenance are all centralized at Michigan State University. The H-Net project thus provides an interesting model for large and highly distributed collaborative online projects in the Humanities. It may be a useful example for smaller collaborative projects as well.
H-Net began as a relatively small project in 1993 (three e-mail lists with 500 subscribers and a handful of editors). As we have grown we have had to develop ways of coping with that growth. One major step came in the fall of 1995, when H-Net MSU began to hire a large staff of part-time student workers. This new work force brought a host of new difficulties (payroll, management, supervision, training, etc.), each of which has had to be addressed. In the meantime, the growth of the H-Net editorial community from a few individuals to the current corps of 250 has meant that we have had to develop mechanisms for training editors and providing them with technical help.
Our rapidly-growing subscriber base requires a different form of technical help from the help we offer our editors, and subscribers require the academic equivalent of customer service. Individual projects, such as the H-Net review project and H-Net's Job Guide, require training, staffing, and their own customer service. Finally, the establishment of the Gopher and Web sites, which account for the bulk of our labor costs, has generated new needs in training, supervision and quality control. The Web site in turn generates inquiries from new potential subscribers as well as current H-Net participators, causing us to create yet another level of response to customer concerns.
My paper will briefly summarize the challenges we face and the solutions we have reached, in the hope both of providing an example to others (even if only a negative one) and of learning from other projects. I will discuss the following major areas:
To reduce labor costs, we have found that it is crucial to make the best use possible of tracking databases and project management systems. Unlike some other major Humanities computing projects, we write our own software, which reduces upfront costs and increases our ability to customize; however, writing the software places an added burden on our technical staff. It is also important to keep abreast of potentially labor-saving developments in the commercial software world; for example, we are moving to using three or four different programs for different purposes in the mark-up process.
2) Customer Service
Customer service, or the academic equivalent, is a major concern and should be taken very seriously from the beginning of any online project with a potentially large audience, since a large audience will inevitably include a number of "newbies" who will need help to use online resources effectively. Large distributed projects will have to consider providing effective and prompt technical help to customers (like our subscribers) and collaborators (like our editors) alike.
Every Humanities project with which I am familiar faces considerable challenges when it comes to keeping up equipment. Equipment purchasing and on-going maintenance must be taken into account in planning for labor costs. On-going costs are generated by improvements in technology (students really prefer working on Pentiums to working on 486 machines; next year, no doubt, they'll want Pentium Pros), by the ever-increasing memory demands of contemporary software packages, and by the simple fact that complex, delicate machines used by a number of users just plain break a lot.
4) Training and turnover
Training and turnover in a student workforce are also typical difficulties for online Humanities projects housed in universities. Students who already know what you need them to know can often command much higher salaries off-campus than a Humanities project can muster; students also have an annoying tendency to graduate. This creates an on-going turnover and training problem. Training a workforce is a problem that must be addressed early if student staffers are going to be used. Training for management should also be considered.
5) Decision-making structures
The clearer the hierarchy and the division of decision-making powers is, the better a distributed project will work. My guess is that there will be a certain amount of ambiguity about hierarchy in any collaborative academic project of any size, even where shared enthusiasm generates good will among collaborators. Shared Web-authoring, for example, can lead to conflicts over content, aesthetics, and the exact scope and purpose of a site or sites. Since the vision of what Web sites can do is evolving so rapidly, it may be too much to expect a binding a priori statement for new projects, but a shared sense of vision and some understanding of the division of responsibilities will turn out to be crucial as projects (inevitably) evolve.
E-Text Creation as Cottage Industry: The Victorian Women Writers Project
The creation of electronic texts is a labor-intensive process. The amount of effort and skill required to create accurately transcribed and encoded electronic texts is not trivial, and may seem daunting to anyone contemplating such a project. Many projects have large budgets derived from grants, endowments and other sources, to pay for work by students or typing agencies. Such projects generally have a wide scope, looking to create electronic collections from across period or national boundaries.
The Victorian Women Writers Project at Indiana University has operated so far with almost no budget, using a number of creative strategies. By creating undergraduate internships, involving volunteers, finding small university research grants, and drawing from hourly budgets, the Project has been able to create a growing collection of important and scarce works by 19th century British women writers. This approach, closer in spirit to the cottage industries of the period rather than industrial production, draws on enthusiam both for this period and for the WWW.
By focusing only on texts from the Victorian era (1837-1901), the Project has had more impact with its scant resources, albeit on a narrow range of scholars, than if its scope had been broader. There is a large (and seemingly growing) interest in the literature, history, fashion and culture of Victorian England, involving many people both inside and outside of the academy. Their enthusiasm has made the Victorian Women Writers Project site very popular, with almost 20,000 visits in its first year. By drawing on this interest, the Project has included the effort of several volunteers who have donated their time to preserving and making available works by women of this period. Funds have been found in various parts of the library's budget to hire part-time students for the typing and preparation of electronic texts.
The English Department at Indiana University has a strong interest in Victorian Studies, and in support of the Project has created an undergraduate internship, similar to its internships for academic journals. Students who apply for the internship receive credit for creating, editing and proofreading electronic editions, and in the process learn about the World Wide Web, SGML and HTML, and women's writing of the period. One industrious student received a small university research grant for his work during the summer.
The process of creating an electronic edition is time-consuming. Each etext is transcribed, encoded and proofed by either students or volunteers. Some of the participants have been trained in the TEI Guidelines, while others use a simplified encoding scheme. The General Editor then verifies the accuracy of the encoding and transcription by proofing the text again, and creates digital images of title pages and illustrations. Every step of this process can be accomplished using relatively inexpensive or free software available on most university computing networks.
The Project is overseen by an Advisory Board made up of seven prominent Victorianists from universities across the country. They volunteer their time and expertise out of their desire to make literature by women of this period more widely available. Using e-mail as the primary mode of communication, the board has reached decisions concerning general direction as well as specific decisions concerning authors and editions to include. The board plans to meet at conferences, such as the annual Modern Languages Association Convention in December 1997 in Washington D.C.
The General Editor has applied for grants for further expansion, but believes that the model established for this Project can be used by many other librarians and scholars with few available resources.
Discipline-Specific Humanities Computing: Whose Job Is It?
With higher education institutions experiencing unprecedented growth in distributed computing, pressures to support the needs of students, faculty, administrators and staff using these systems in various and diverse ways have also increased substantially. In particular, there has been an increasing awareness that if faculty are going to integrate IT into teaching and students to benefit from the full potential of IT in their individual programs, support for discipline-specific computing must be implemented and maintained. The big question for most institutions has been "who is to provide this support?" This paper presents several models that have been adopted for providing computing support to humanities faculty, and focuses on the following key issues as spelling the success or failure of these models: ability to provide adequate support at the departmental level, at present and in the future; demand on faculty time and energy; credentials and range of responsibilities of professionals providing the support. Examples of models in use at specific universities are offered where appropriate (in the interest of brevity, reference to these examples has been omitted from the abstract). Ultimately, the paper ends with an endorsement of decentralized support models.
While budget restraints have driven a trend towards centralization in the administration of computing services, an equally influential trend towards decentralization has been driven by the complexity of resources required to meet the needs of diverse users. In providing humanities computing support, many institutions have opted for what has been called an "intermediary solution" ("Integrating Information Services in an Academic Setting: The Organizational and Technical Challenge," _CAUSE/EFFECT_ 17:3, 1994), either establishing a humanities computing center or delegating to certain computing center personnel the specific task of responding to the needs of humanities faculty. These support personnel work more closely with humanities faculty than has traditionally been the case with generalized computing services personnel, taking on the responsibilities of helping faculty to upgrade computing skills, making faculty aware of computing resources that might be of specific interest to them, and working with faculty in designing course materials that take advantage of such resources.
Administrators cite the numerous advantages of such models. They do more towards getting IT staff out of the office and into the work environment where the services are actually being used, increasing the support professional's ability to understand the computing goals of humanities faculty and interpret requests for help from them. This semi- centralized support system is also often seen as more cost effective than allowing each department to establish and maintain its own computing services system. Hiring only a few professionals can meet the needs of several departments at once, both avoiding duplication of services and resources expenditures and having the likelihood of avoiding expensive interoperability problems down the road. The combination of enhanced ability to respond to increasingly complex user demand and at the same time stay within budget, or even save money, make these models especially attractive.
There are some disadvantages to the semi-centralized approach, however, most of which stem precisely from its status as an intermediary solution. In practice, these models often do not go far enough towards providing the level of discipline-specific support that enables faculty to develop exciting and innovative use of IT resources. Similar tendencies as those at work in general computing services centers exist, primarily a factor of there still being too few people to meet too large a number of demands. More time is often spent on basic upgrading of faculty computing skills and on introducing faculty to resources than it is in developing discipline-specific applications. At the same time, such models often tend to draw almost as heavily on un(der)paid student labour as general computing services centers, with the professional humanities computing support staff acting as administrators and coordinators, rather than interacting with faculty at the individual level. As a result of this still-inadequate human resources supply, faculty wishing to move beyond more basic applications are frequently left to muddle along by themselves, shifting the load back again to also already-overworked faculty. An additional problem is that currently few departments have developed a defined system for evaluating and rewarding the activities of faculty who decide to devote time and energy to such tasks, having the effect of already-overworked faculty taking on what is therefore tantamount to extra, unpaid labour. Add to this the suspicion among faculty in many departments that "real" jobs are somehow being lost to computers or "techies" ( "Reengineering Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: Sheltered Groves, Camelot, Windmills, and Malls," R. Heterick, Jr., ed., _CAUSE Professional Paper Series #10_) and it is easy to see how, though a cost-effective solution, the semi-centralized approach can be less strategically effective than it might seem.
A more thoroughly decentralized approach, and currently the less common approach, is that of hiring a faculty member who specializes in humanities computing into each department. Responsibilities could range from teaching humanties computing courses specifically focussed for that discipline, to developing discipline-specific applications and courseware, to maintaining departmental servers and administrating departmental IT resources; responsiblities could also involve peer support and encouragement in adopting IT for teaching. Advantages of this model include the obvious gain of truly discipline-specific support, putting the needed service as close to the end user as possible. Economically, the hiring of humanities computing faculty members for each department may not be as wasteful as it sounds. When faculty are told that there is not enough money for both additional IT resources and another faculty member, if given the choice, they will usually opt for the faculty member ("Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity," W. Massy and R. Zemsky, Educom Conference, June, 1995). Indeed, these "in-house" humanities computing specialists could--and at some institutions, do--also teach courses in the department's main discipline. For the price of one professor, an English department could, for example, gain both a humanities computing specialist and an eighteenth-century literature specialist. With both sets of duties being officially defined as part of the faculty member's position, professional rewards for work done and a more equitable workload may be more likely to be achieved.
Disadvantages of this model consist primarily of interoperability problems and duplication of services, two of the issues that the semi-centralized model does address well. These disadvantages are not inevitable, however; coordinated efforts on the part of departments, schools or divisions, and computing services, occuring in the context of an institution-wide general IT strategy, can eliminate most of these problems. Well-defined roles for each level of support would then become a crucial issue; computing services providing skills upgrading and general connectivity support, for instance, with departments providing the bulk of discipline-specific support and application development and schools or divisions running introductory humanities computing courses, possibly team-taught or taught alternately by faculty members from different departments who would also teach more discipline-specific computing courses aimed at upper-year students would be an example of an effective work arrangement between the different levels. A more serious disadvantage, at this point in time, is the lack of candidates for such a position; as department heads have pointed out, finding Ph.D-ed potential faculty members who are also sufficiently qualified in humanities computing can be a daunting task ("Jobs for Computing Humanists," E. Johnson, _Computers and the Humanities_, 27.2,1993). I believe, however, that this is a problem in the process of righting itself, as more and more faculty and graduate students become involved--and credentialed, either by way of degree program or publication--in humanities computing.
Higher education institutions are currently at a crossroads in balancing what services they can afford with what services they really do need. One thing is clear: more and more faculty are going to move beyond basic computing abilities, and more and more students thoroughly conversant with information technologies are going to enroll. Humanities computing support models are going to have to keep pace with these changes.
If this content appears in violation of your intellectual property rights, or you see errors or omissions, please reach out to Scott B. Weingart to discuss removing or amending the materials.
Hosted at Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario, Canada
June 3, 1997 - June 7, 1997
76 works by 119 authors indexed
Conference website: https://web.archive.org/web/20010105065100/http://www.cs.queensu.ca/achallc97/