The Continuing Adventures of a DHA TA

Last term, I wrote about my experience as a Teaching Assistant (TA) in a classroom setting for the first time. I’m still doing some work as a TA this term, but not in a classroom setting. One of the main projects we are helping out with this term is a project using Neatline in one of Professor Victoria Morse’s courses. The main goal of the project is for students to explore, grapple with, and try to understand medieval conceptions of space and geography and how they differ from modern ideas of space and geography. This goal is one of the reasons that Neatline was chosen as the platform for this project. Rather than trying to warp medieval maps into our modern understanding of space (one of my old blog posts explored the challenges of trying to do this), Neatline allows images without spatial coordinates to serve as the base map – essentially on the image’s own terms. Since Victoria’s goal was not to match medieval maps to modern maps but rather understand the way the medieval maps display geography, the ability to not match up coordinates made Neatline a good choice.

Martha and I are the designated TAs for Victoria’s class. We have both worked as TAs before, but of course that doesn’t mean we aren’t still learning a lot. One realization we had a couple weeks ago had to do with how we were asked questions. A student in Victoria’s class came to us and essentially said, “I don’t understand.” Martha and I completely understand where this is coming from – when learning a new technology it can be overwhelming and confusing to the point of not even knowing what you are actually confused about. However, this wasn’t a very helpful question for us, which meant that at first we ended up asking more questions than the student, trying to make sure we knew what it was they were trying to find out. We tried to clarify what it was they needed help with: “Do you understand what Neatline is? Do you have an idea of the kind of project you will construct with Neatline? Do you want us to help you with setting up an account? Would it be helpful to walk through the creation of a Neatline exhibit?” This proved to be very useful, and we were able to get the student started on their project. For me, this experience drove home the importance of how questions get asked, since that guides how the question gets answered. In addition, it helped me think through the clarifying questions and what we could do to make sure we helped a confused student.

Time Management, or the Eternal Struggle

It is no secret to anyone who has spent any amount of time at Carleton that life here is busy. Classes, workstudy, sports, rehearsals, volunteering, research and occasional sleep combine in elaborate ways which can make anyone dizzy and make planning ahead and keeping track of all the commitments almost impossible. I remember thinking when I was applying to be a DHA last year: “This job is so awesome! I get to schedule my own hours – that means I can just work on the projects whenever I have free time”. I was only partially right. The job is indeed awesome, except there is no free time. As weeks go by, the term gradually turns into an avaricious time-sucking wormhole – and finding time to work becomes a struggle, sometimes (almost) making me wish I had a set schedule.

My job as a DHA made me realize how inept I am at organizing my time. I can finally feel that I’m slowly but steadily getting better. Here’s what I’ve learned (by many a trial and many an error):

  • Having a planner is very useful and marking the hours I expect to have to work on DH projects at the beginning of each week definitely helps.
  • Even though there are no official hours, it’s good to set hours for myself as if there were, and adhere to the schedule as much as possible – if there’s a conflict in my schedule for that week, I can deviate from it.
  • Project logs are great! Better still if they are detailed and well-written. It has happened to me many times that I would jot down a quick note to myself about what I still need to do for a project or think that it’s so obvious that writing anything down is completely unnecessary. Unsurprisingly, next time I sat down to work on the project I’d be totally lost because I would no longer remember my own thought process. So yes, write down as much as possible.
  • Try not to put off until tomorrow what can be done today. Sounds simple but is surprisingly effective.

In this way my work as a DHA has inspired me to start an uphill battle with absent-mindedness and procrastination. It will be a long and tough one. But I have hope.

Knowing That I Don’t Know: Asking Questions

As I near the end of my second term as a DHA, it is a good time to reflect on what I’ve learned from this experience so far. Since starting in September, I have learned, been exposed to, and experimented with a number of digital tools. Although the major tool I have been using in my work is ArcGIS, being part of the DHA team and Team Workhouse means that I learn more every week from the work other team members have been doing. However, perhaps more importantly than learning digital tools, I have learned the importance of communication and asking questions.

For teams like the DHAs and Team Workhouse, communication is crucial. Just like the game objects in Bard’s Unity project that needed to share information in order to function, people on teams also need to share information in order to function smoothly. Uncertainty about who is doing what is not efficient or productive for teams. A particularly important part of communication is asking questions. While I have learned a lot about digital tools these last two terms, I know that there is a lot that I still don’t know. While sometimes it can be productive to struggle through uncertainty to figure something out, other times the process can be greatly improved by a quick meeting or email exchange.

One example of this was when I was helping to migrate our website to a new page (you can see our current website here!). In particular, I was struggling with moving media (especially videos) over to the new site. I spent time looking through Reason’s documentation and trying to figure it out myself, but made very little progress on my problem. Finally, I talked to Doug Bratland, Web Content Specialist, part of Carleton’s Web Services Group. He was incredibly helpful and in just a half hour was able to fix the problems I had been working on. Not only did he solve the problems I was having, but he also took time to explain why I had been running into problems and make sure that I understood what he did to solve them. I came away from that meeting with not just solutions to the website issues, but also a deeper understanding of how Reason CMS works. If I had not asked for help and questions about the problems I had with the website, not only would it have taken much longer to fix, but I wouldn’t have learned as much about how it works. Although just one example from my two terms as a DHA, it nevertheless illustrates the importance of asking questions about things I don’t know. And although I have learned a lot about digital tools in the past two terms, there is still a lot I don’t know. So, I will need to keep asking questions.

DHA Fall Schedule

Welcome to Fall Term! We have a lot to do this term, and with doing a lot comes communicating a lot both with the rest of the DHA team and also with the faculty, staff, and students we support on campus. Digital Humanities is a team sport, and good teamwork runs on good communication, so I’m kicking things off by laying out our broad schedule for the fall.

Communication this term

2015-09-14_1510First, we’ll be managing our projects using Asana. Each team member should have an invitation to join an Asana Workspace, and in that workspace you’ll find our major projects laid out in the left-hand menu (available under the little hamburger menu icon)

One of your first projects should be to familiarize yourself with Asana – how to put tasks into projects, tags, attaching various kinds of things, having team conversations, assigning tasks to others, etc. I’ll start a blog post for that assignment soon and you can all use the comments to help us all learn useful things about Asana, or you can write your own blog post if you have something more long-form you want to say.

The other main communication tool we’ll use is this blog. Meeting notes and project updates might be published as “private” (meaning only we can see them if we’re logged in), but one really interesting thing about the digital humanities is how much people share with each other via blogs and Twitter and Facebook, so we’ll participate with the community and with each other that way, commenting on blogs and writing posts, sharing knowledge and ideas and asking for help.

Team Meeting Schedule

So those are the two main overarching things for this term. And here is the sketch of our meeting schedule for the term. We will have team meetings most weeks and then individual meetings as necessary.

Week 1: Orientation and beginnings

  1. Introductions
  2. Orientation to the DHA job responsibilities
  3. Project descriptions and updates for current projects (from returning DHAs)
  4. Assignments
    1. Divvying up projects between team members (projects have initial tasks pre-loaded into Asana)
    2. Learning Asana Assignment
    3. “What is Digital Humanities” assignment.

Week 2: Professional academic blogging

  1. Project Updates
  2. Conversation: What is blogging and how do you do it well in digital humanities?
  3. DHA blog redesign – early conversations about design and content for our blog
  4. Conversation: What is Digital Humanities?” Based on Week 1 assignment.
  5. Assignments for the week
    1. Find some best practices for blog design.
    2. Find a theme or two to suggest for the blog.
    3. Begin a review of blog content.

Week 3: Writing for the Web

  1. Project Updates
  2. DHA Presentation #1 (one DHA presenting to the rest of us on skills or ideas that will help us all and that the presenter has learned from current projects)
  3. Presentation/Conversation: writing for the web with special guest Doug Bratland [schedule still being finalized]
  4. Assignments for the week
    1. Write bios for the blog
    2. write an About page for the blog

Week 4: 3D projects

  1. Project updates
  2. DHA Presentation #2 (one DHA presenting to the rest of us on skills or ideas that will help us all and that the presenter has learned from current projects)
  3. Presentation/Conversation: 3D projects in digital humanities with special “guest” Austin Mason.
  4. Assignments for the week (TBA)

Week 5: Content Management Systems

  1. Project updates
  2. DHA Presentation #3 (one DHA presenting to the rest of us on skills or ideas that will help us all and that the presenter has learned from current projects)
  3. Presentation/Conversation: content management systems with special “guest” Austin Mason.
  4. Assignments for the week (TBA)

[Week 6 – no scheduled Team Meeting]

Week 7: Hitting our Stride

  1. Project Updates
  2. DHA Presentation #4 (one DHA presenting to the rest of us on skills or ideas that will help us all and that the presenter has learned from current projects)
  3. Assignments for the week (TBA)

[Week 8 – no scheduled Team Meeting]

Week 9: Preparing for December Break

  1. Project Updates
  2. DHA Presentation #5 (one DHA presenting to the rest of us on skills or ideas that will help us all and that the presenter has learned from current projects)
  3. Assignments for the week
    1. Prepare documentation and tasks/goals for next term for each of the projects you’re working on.

Week 10: Individual Meetings

  1. Each DHA should set up a meeting with Iris and/or Austin. During this meeting we’ll review each DHA project (the project’s goals and what we’ve done so far to work toward those goals). Then we’ll set up goals and tasks for next term so that we can hit the ground running in January. Be sure to gather notes and files and other documentation in preparation for these individual meetings.

Asana for DHA Project Management

2015-09-14_1552There are quite a few free project management tools out there – Trello and Basecamp are two of the other very popular ones right now – and it’s entirely possible that as you collaborate with other partners on campus you will end up using other systems that integrate well with that particular project.

I chose Asana for us to use as our home base for several reasons. First, it is widely used by several in the library and by everyone in ITS, making collaborative project management much easier for projects that will involve staff from these areas. It is also really good at integrating with Google Docs and Dropbox, making it a great tool for working with some of the other widely used collaborative tools on campus. There are various other things I love about it (and a few things I don’t love so much, which is true of every tool under the sun), but I’ll let you explore and find what YOU think will work well for us this term.

And that’s your Asana assignment for this week. Play with the system, explore its tutorials and documentation, and write down some of the things that would be useful for us all to know as we work together via Asana this term. Post those ideas in the comments or, if you have a whole lot to say, and especially if you have neat hacks or work-arounds that would be great to share with the broader community, feel free to write your own blog post here.

And if you’re not one of my DHAs and you’re reading this had have ideas for us, by all means add a comment! The more ideas the merrier!

What are “Digital Humanities” anyway?

Out in the wide world of the Digital Humaties blogosphere and twitterverse, this is a question that really preoccupied people for a long, long time. And here on the Carleton Campus, it’s still a bit of an open question for a few reasons. First, it’s relatively new. Second, the definition for what we do here at Carleton in terms of digital humanities will differ from what other institutions do because we’ll be driven by the research questions of our humanities folks, the staffing capacities and skills on our campus, and the technical infrastructure of our institution.

For us on this team, the definition matters not only because we are part of this thing called Digital Humanities, but also because it helps us decide what work we take on and what work we turn down. We can’t do all the work on campus, so some definitional boundaries are important. But we also want the flexibility to explore this rapidly changing field, so we don’t want our definitional boundaries to be too rigid. So you can see that the balance can be a bit tricky and that it’ll probably shift over time.

DHAs, this week please do a little online exploration. Google “digital humanities” and follow at least 5 links, then poke around this blog to see what past DHAs have written that may help you get a sense of what Digital Humanities means here at Carleton.

When you’ve explored a bit, leave comments here or write a blog post about what you’ve found. What defines the Digital Humanities? Who is the audience for that answer? Is it a useful question to ask (beyond helping us define our day-to-day job duties)? What distinguishes the Digital Humanities at Carleton? Are there things we seem to concentrate on? Things we haven’t delved into?

We’ll also talk more about what you’ve learned at next week’s Team Meeting.

If you’re not a DHA and you’re reading this, feel free to leave comments! The more ideas the merrier!