About the digital humanities analysis project

The Bamboo Planning Project officially wrapped up at the end of December 2010 with the submission of a final report to the Mellon Foundation. The planning project alone was a major undertaking, involving nine meetings with over 325 participants and 90 institutions in the Workshop 1 series alone. It was not always an easy path-- the story is often told of how, a few hours into Workshop 1a, project directors Chad Kainz and David Greenbaum had to throw out their carefully crafted plan and build a new one on the spot in response to feedback from workshop participants. The wedding cake diagram and "services roadmap" presented in Workshop 2 met with protest, and a "stories" working group sprung out of concerns that hadn't been addressed at Workshop 2. Workshop 4 centered around a draft of a document laying out a 7-10 year vision; before its completion, attention shifted to the implementation proposal, which became the focus for Workshop 5. The expected period of back-and-forth with the Mellon Foundation over the implementation proposal ended in December 2009, not with the funding of the proposal, but rather with the shutting down of the Research in Information Technology program to which Bamboo had been applying.

A new implementation proposal that took the project in a slightly different direction began to take shape in early 2010. A sixth workshop in June 2010 brought participants in the planning process together to review the consortium, governance, and technology proposals. The final Bamboo Technology Proposal, Phase 1 was approved for Mellon funding in September 2010, and work has already commenced.

By starting with the broad question "How can we advance arts and humanities research through the development of shared technology services?" and relying on a community design process, discussions at the Project Bamboo workshops touched on topics ranging from political activism to scholarly narratives, from refactoring services to outreach about the promise of digital humanities practices, from leveling the playing field for small liberal arts colleges to concerns about the valuation of digital humanities by promotion and tenure committees. The challenges the project faced at various points helped to further expand the scope of discussion.

In one sense, Project Bamboo did an exemplary job with transparency. Each workshop had one or more scribes who captured the discussions that took place. All the scribe notes for workshops 1-5 were immediately made available to the general public on the Project Bamboo wiki, starting summer 2008. As such, the wiki houses a wealth of data on scholarly practice in the humanities, challenges and opportunities for cyberinfrastructure, desired cultural changes in the humanities, the needs and frustrations of scholars, the overlap between pedagogy and research, potential consortial models and project directions, and much more. However, the wiki faces that typical 21st century challenge: while a tremendous amount of raw data is freely available, its abundance requires a thoughtful analysis to connect the right pieces into a coherent picture. This has been pointed out since Workshop 2, in October 2008: "In reading the wiki, I didn't quite know where to start and where to end. I want an overview! Even the NYTimes has an overview. Some gentle but incisive way of putting the strands together and saying what is the story that's being told here." (W2, Q&A, Friday morning).

Official analyses, published under the auspices of Project Bamboo, have become available only recently, and with a limited scope. The Project Bamboo Scholarly Practice Report, which discusses a subset of the data from Workshop 1, was published December 16, 2010. During summer 2010, Prof. John Laudun wrote a report, "A Technological Ouroboros: Searching Scholarly Narratives in Hopes of Founding a Cyberstructure for the Humanities" [PDF], addressing the issue of scholarly practice from a slightly different angle. Regrettably, to date it hasn't received the attention it merits, existing primarily as an attachment on a Work Spaces teleconference meeting minutes wiki page. These two reports make scholarly practice the most thoroughly analyzed subset of Project Bamboo data, even though exploring scholarly practice was only the starting point for Project Bamboo.

This digital humanities analysis project is an attempt to make the Project Bamboo data more accessible to a broad audience. While the data has been public for up to two-and-a-half years, to my knowledge no one has attempted to go through the notes from all the workshops, line-by-line, to organize and make sense of them. Between the temporal (rather than topical) organization of the material and the tendency for Project Bamboo to use its own unique jargon, raw data is difficult to process if you weren't at the workshops. My experience on the planning project program staff from 2008-2010 helps here; I took a majority of the post-Workshop 1 scribe notes myself. The Project Bamboo Scholarly Practice Report was a product of my first passes through the Workshop 1 data, during the summers of 2008 and 2009. This project is not an official Bamboo effort, but one carried out independently over 200-some hours of nights and weekends, and Project Bamboo is not to be held responsible for any potentially controversial statements.

Currently, the project has taken the following forms:

  1. Data reorganization: the data for all the workshops and Planning Project wiki discussions has been republished it here, grouped thematically.
  2. "Human-readable" summaries: each thematic group of data will at some pointbe associated with at least one summary that captures the major issues. Additional summaries will be published based on new data as time permits.
  3. "So you wanna...": the questions and concerns that were raised about various potential directions for Bamboo have been reworked into a series of pages I'm calling "So you wanna..." (e.g. "So you wanna create a digital humanities consortium")

The last of these was directly motivated by the National Collaboration for Digital Humanities in the Liberal Arts Grant Planning Session on January 5th, 2011 which had significant overlap with some of the directions considered for Bamboo. If the difficult questions directed towards Project Bamboo can help another project turn a critical eye towards improving its own plans, I will consider this a success.

Arguably, the unexpected "deliverable" of the Bamboo Planning Project that had the greatest impact is the conversations that it sparked on local campuses, whether or not the institutions ultimately committed to Bamboo. My goal is for this project to continue the tradition of bringing to light interesting and challenging issues, with the hope that it may inform future projects and cross-institutional efforts.

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