"Maybe this time": project déjà vu

The Bamboo Planning Project, which consumed my life from 2008 to 2009, officially concluded on December 31, 2010, allowing me to publish a project I've been working on independently for over a year. You can read the full project description here, but in summary, I've organized the notes from the Bamboo workshops that have been public on the Bamboo wiki for 1.5 - 2.5 years by topic, and written summaries for the data that wasn't covered in the Project Bamboo Scholarly Practice Report; expanded summaries of topics related to scholarly practice are in progress.

After I hit "publish" on it all yesterday, it came to me that I've done this same project before. When I was 14, in the International Baccalaureate Program, I read The Chosen by Chaim Potok and came across a quote that's stuck with me ever since:

"If a person has a contribution to make, he must make it in public. If learning is not made public, it is a waste."

QuinnNotes screenshotTaking this to heart, I built a webpage (using a text editor, and hosted by Geocities) where I posted my class notes every day. It was called QuinnNotes, and it found an audience not only with my classmates, but with IB students in far-flung places. The most extensive material was from history and English; the teachers' reactions were mixed. My own hazy memory suggests that I ran it my entire sophomore year, but when I dug up the old HTML files, my inconsistent metadata raises some doubts. The project started 11/6/99, daily history notes end 2/10/00, but there's pages for novels I'm almost certain we read in the spring. There were a couple jokes and drawings submitted by my classmates; I tried to encourage people to send me their essays (on the grounds that, since nearly everyone typed them anyways, why not submit it to a shared pool of knowledge?) and was disappointed that my classmates were happy to take but disinclined to give.

In retrospect, I was trying to create something like a "scholarly" wiki at a time when the web was still 1.0 and "community" was still manifested through webrings.

As I was finishing my BA/MA in 2006, I set about building a scholarly hub for Slavic linguistics, slowly and painfully, using Drupal 4. My goal was to aggregate resources and events for Slavists (grants, conferences), publish the OCR'd versions of major reference works that I had been painstakingly proofreading, and build a forum where scholars could publish and respond to each other's work. I'd attended a few conferences and was dismayed at how inefficiently they spread knowledge. Certainly, I thought, a website where one could succinctly write up discoveries and theories and receive feedback from one's peers would be a vast improvement.

It's for the best that Drupal 4 was such a hassle to use that the project never got off the ground. I fundamentally misunderstood how promotion and tenure worked and the importance of peer reviewed (printed) publications. Even if advancing human knowledge by building on others' ideas is the goal of scholarship in the biggest picture, upholding the customs and practices that keep scholars employed and in good standing (publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals, publishing a monograph with a respected press, etc.) takes precedence.

It's 2011: five years have passed since my failed Slavic portal, and 11 years have passed since QuinnNotes. Still, I find myself seeing common threads running through my current set of projects. Re-publishing an organized and summarized version of the Bamboo notes is not far removed from QuinnNotes, particularly since I took many of the original scribe notes at the workshops. I don't expect a unanimously positive reaction to the Bamboo notes, either. This semester, Andrea Sims of Ohio State University's Slavic department is running an MA exam prep class, and her students will be publishing article summaries and article content reworked into topical pages on a wiki for Slavic linguistics that I built (more on the wiki project here). It may have failed with essays on QuinnNotes and the entire concept behind the Slavic portal, but people have finally agreed to share their academic work in public. Next week, I'll be attending the National Collaboration for Digital Humanities in the Liberal Arts Grant Planning Session, where we'll be discussing the possibility of developing a hub for tools, resources, and people in digital humanities, based in part on a site mock-up I put together with some like-minded folks I met at the Chicago THATCamp; this picks up on the other goal I hoped to accomplish with the Slavic portal.

Starting a project without institutional support, grant support, or staffing beyond what time I can squeeze in after working a full-time job (as per the usual circumstances of my projects) necessitates wishful thinking. Most grand ideas have been tried before; more often than not, they fall short or fail outright. But I'm a sucker for quixotic good ideas, inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the thorny details of implementation-- if it's worth doing, things will work out. "Go at it boldly, and you'll find unexpected forces closing round you and coming to your aid."1 I've left a trail of unfinished projects, learning more from some than others, but most importantly getting better at deciding when to cut my losses, salvage what I can, apologize if necessary, and move on. Still, my personal philosophy is that if there's a project that's worth doing, and I'm a reasonably qualified person to take it on, I'll give it a shot. In the words of Liza Minnelli,

[The project's] got to happen, happen sometime
Maybe this time I'll win.

1 Basil King, 1921, The Conquest of Fear.


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