Devising New Roles for Scholars Who Can Code

Dan Addison

Bethany Nowviskie
April 29, 2013

Bethany Nowviskie likes to build things. As a graduate student at Wake Forest and then at the University of Virginia 20 years ago, she "started to tinker" with computer programming, building projects that were "intensely ludic and goofy and fun." One was an impromptu, online John Keats archive. Another was a Mad Libs-style program that generated Keats and Wordsworth poems based on phrases fed into it. The results had a Keatsian-Wordsworthian flair, but "I could never get them to rhyme," she says.

That kind of playfulness led her to more serious computing projects, such as working on the Rossetti Archive, a pioneering digital collection of material about the 19th-century English artist and writer Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Such projects helped demonstrate the possibilities of mixing humanities and computing—now called digital humanities.

THE INNOVATOR: Bethany Nowviskie, U. of Virginia

THE BIG IDEA: Collaborative, technology-enabled projects can enliven the digital humanities.

"It was pretty easy to see we were on the brink of a massive transformation of our collective archive, and I wanted to be a part of that," Ms. Nowviskie recalls. For her, the most exciting thing about graduate school was the chance to create "concrete manifestations of the learning we were doing," and to do that in a collaborative environment where people wanted to build tools as well as study texts. She calls this "translational" work—bridging the gaps between scholars, technology experts, and so-called alternative-academic workers whose jobs don't follow traditional university trajectories—and it drives much of what Ms. Nowviskie does.

Now director of digital research and scholarship at the University of Virginia Library, Ms. Nowviskie has become a driving force in digital humanities. At the library-based Scholars Lab, she brings together teams of researchers and programmers to work on collaborative, tech-enabled scholarly projects. An all-together-now ethos infuses Ms. Nowviskie's outlook: She chairs the program committee for this year's Digital Humanities conference, the annual gathering of the international Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations, serves as president of the Association for Computers and the Humanities, and advocates for the growing alt-ac work force—people with advanced degrees and scholarly training who work in academe but not in traditional academic jobs—and pushes the field to ensure that gender, race, ethnicity, and economic status don't get left out of digital-humanities conversations.

Ms. Nowviskie, 39, grew up in West Virginia. She was a book-loving kid who did "some gaming and some rudimentary programming in middle school" but cared more about literature than about computers.

As a graduate student at UVa, she found a way to work on both at the same time.

She wound up in charge of designing the Web interface for the Rossetti Archive, led by the literature professor Jerome McGann. She also had a hand in developing the markup system used to represent and analyze poems and images in the archive. The work taught her the value of planning in scholarly projects, and the need to think not just about a site's content but its public face, how people will interact with it. She got her Ph.D. from UVa in 2004. It was "a hugely fertile moment at Virginia, where we were really the cradle of digital humanities," she says. As a postdoc there, she played a key role in developing Nines, Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Scholarship, an influential online hub for scholarly resources.

Since then, digital humanities has gotten more and more attention. But Ms. Nowviskie sees too many humanities graduate students still stuck in an older model of graduate training, one in which graduate school means laboring in solitude in the archives or the library. Years go by before that work produces something tangible like a dissertation.

At the Scholars Lab, Ms. Nowviskie shows Ph.D. students that scholarship doesn't have to take place in isolation, nor should it leave people with other skills out of the equation. A literary critic can learn from a coder; a programmer can be a serious intellectual partner on a scholarly team; a scholar can do important work on or off the tenure track. Ms. Nowviskie's goal is to get people "thinking less about typical markers of academic prestige than about the quality and energy behind the work," she says.

"I would call her a field-builder," says Abby Smith Rumsey, director of UVa's Scholarly Communication Institute, which Ms. Nowviskie co-directs. According to Ms. Rumsey, Ms. Nowviskie's ability to look across disciplinary boundaries helped establish her as a leader in the digital-humanities community. People looked to her to help them understand "the larger frame in which their particular interests played out," Ms. Rumsey says.

One of her recent projects, called Praxis, aims to help graduate students develop a broader view of humanities scholarship. A few years ago, Ms. Nowviskie noticed that students who came to work at the Scholars Lab were still "hiding and hoarding and polishing" their work, she says. That sat uneasily with the ethos of a place "where we're building a whole lot of things collaboratively" and releasing work in stages.

Praxis attempts to address that disconnect. It's a yearlong fellowship that brings a group of UVa graduate students together at the lab to learn how to work as a team to build tools for humanities research. For instance, the first two groups of fellows created a Web-based collective-annotation program called Prism. "We're trying to teach them good software-development practices too: Sharing your work in increments, being a little more bold about saying what you don't know but also just putting the work out there," Ms. Nowviskie says.

As word spread about Praxis, she began to get calls and e-mails from administrators at other institutions who wanted to know how they could put similar training programs in place for their students. "That made me think that what I really should do is lay out all the parts and pieces of our local program against some like-minded institutions," she recalls.

Working with Katina Rogers, a senior research specialist at the Scholarly Communication Institute, Ms. Nowviskie helped establish the international Praxis Network. The network went live in March, supported in part by money from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Praxis effort ties in with Ms. Nowviskie's continuing commitment to alt-ac careers­. "If it looks like you're building infrastructure, if it looks like you're building the plumbing" for a scholarly project, your intellectual contributions still tend to be undervalued, categorized as service work rather than scholarship, Ms. Nowviskie says.

"I have spent so much of my career working with software developers who are attached to humanities projects," she says. "Most have higher degrees in their disciplines." Unlike their professorial peers, though, they aren't trained to "unpack" their thinking in seminars and scholarly papers. "I've spent enough time working with them to understand that a lot of the intellectual codework goes unspoken," she says.

That will be the focus of "Speaking in Code," a two-day symposium she's organizing at UVa this fall, which will focus on the theory and practice that isn't visible or intelligible to many humanists. Train more humanists in tech, or encourage them to create intellectual partnerships with people trained in it, and those barriers begin to break down.

Ms. Nowviskie sees such projects as critical to the future health of the humanities. "If we don't create paths for people who have a deep love and appreciation for the humanities to remain in the orbit of the academy, to contribute to this vast transformation of our cultural inheritance, to think about how we may do analysis and interpretation going forward, and to think about how we preserve this work for future generations," she says, "we are lost."