The following is a transcript of a video I put together for the DHSI 2020 project management workshop. I usually prefer text to video, myself, but this is a video worth experiencing, and one of my favorite things that I've been able to make since the start of the pandemic.
Hi, I’m Quinn Dombrowski, Academic Technology Specialist in the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages and the Library at Stanford University.
Also, recently, an early child education and kindergarten teacher for three kids 6-and-under.
And I’m excited to share a course I taught this last winter, DLCL 205: Project Management and Ethical Collaboration for Humanists. Or, more succinctly, Rolling the Dice on Project Management.
Good project management is a key factor in the success of digital humanities projects, beyond a certain scale. (And that scale may sometimes be as small as “involving more than one person.”) What’s more, project management skills are highly sought after, from alt-ac jobs to a wide range of non-profit and industry contexts. The increasing recognition of the value of project management — both within and beyond DH — has led to the development of numerous courses and workshops designed to teach the tools and methods of project management.
There’s resources for faculty and staff who are in the process of developing and applying for grants, there’s workshops for graduate students who often unofficially play project manager roles on DH projects, and there’s courses that anyone can take — some connected to formal, broadly-recognized certifications, like ScrumMaster.
These are wonderful developments, and much needed! But there’s one critical shortcoming to all these approaches: as everyone who’s done project management knows, at its heart, project management is a practice.
Learning about methods and processes and templates and documents is a way to start, but you’re never going to get good at it without doing it. So where do you get the experience doing it? Where can you make the mistakes that are inevitably part of the process without projects — or more importantly, people — suffering as a consequence of your learning?
Well, how do we handle other things that aren’t safe to do “in real life”?
[VIDEO GAME CLIPS — SIMULATION]
We have simulations! And not just simulations of technical things, like flying planes or doing surgery.
[ROLL A D6]
In some sense, I’d argue that games like “Dungeons and Dragons” and other tabletop RPGs — while their premises may involve imaginary creatures and powers — provide, in a lot of ways, simulations of real social situations. Personal glory or teamwork? Getting what you always dreamed of, whatever the cost, or recognizing the value in what you have? You have to make choices. Those choices have real consequences in the game. But no one actually gets killed.
So this class was an experiment. For the first half of each 90-minute session, we discussed a set of readings. And then for the second half, we played the DH Role Playing Game (or DH RPG) were transported through the power of imagination and dice into a parallel universe where the students each played a character, who was involved in an imaginary DH project in some way.
I spent a lot of time trying to model the universe of higher ed from a DH perspective for this course. What I ended up with was an extensive “skill guide” that drove the creation of the character sheets. All skills fell into one of five categories:
* Disciplinary: knowledge of an academic subject area; includes writing skills and human language knowledge
* Technical: ability to use technology; includes everything from formatting text in Microsoft Word, to programming language knowledge, to using a high-performance computing cluster
* Interpersonal*: skills related to understanding and communicating with others; includes charisma, negotiating, and uncovering deception
* Management*: skills related to organizing people and tasks and staying on top of responsibilities; includes drafting grant documents (reports, etc.) and navigating bureaucracy
* Personal: everything else in your character’s life that doesn’t fit into the other categories; includes sleep, relationships, parenting, hobbies, etc.
Each character type had a different number of “points” that they could assign to those general skill areas, or to specific sub-skills, like being able to read Russian or write Python or tell when administrators are lying. In general, characters with more experience (mid-career librarians and faculty) had more points available, which allowed them to have more advanced skills.
Students rolled the dice to determine the order in which they’d choose which character to play. Ultimately, our characters included one PI (an assistant prof writing her tenure book), one grad student (her advisee), two undergrads (who take classes with the PI and grad student), a postdoc, a full-time librarian, and a part-time librarian. The students themselves were also a mix: the three registered students were a 2nd year PhD student, an MA student, and an undergrad, and they were joined by two late-stage grad students, a postdoc, and a real-life librarian.
Playing an RPG is like telling a story together. Each character has their own individual goals for the year (like getting good grades and a summer internship, or finishing a dissertation chapter), in addition to the collective goal of finishing the project. I was the DM — the DH Master — who comes up with the scenario, which centered on an imaginary project involving digitizing a radical Russian feminist lesbian literary magazine, and analyzing the content.
The imaginary project had everyone’s favorite thorny real-life components: digitization, OCR for a non-Latin alphabet, lots of files to keep track of, website creation and hosting, plus text analysis in a language other than English!
In every class session, we “lived” through a month of game time — starting in June, and working our way through the following May. Each character got 20 activity points that they could choose to allocate to any activity they wanted — from working on their dissertation to binge-watching Netflix. For some activities, like writing, or doing OCR, or teaching, there isn’t a direct mapping between how much time you spend on it, and how good your result is. That’s where rolling the dice comes in.
Let’s say you’re teaching an introductory language class, and you’re a grad student who’s new to teaching and wants to do a good job. Maybe you end up spending 5 activity points each month — 25% of ALL your activity points for the whole month — on prep, teaching, and grading. The students have a great experience and learn a lot, right? Not necessarily! There’s definitely room for pedagogy folks to critique this, but the way I ended up modeling teaching for the game was that teaching involved two rolls: one for charisma (or the base interpersonal skill), and one for organization (or the base management skill). You can be totally disorganized, forget to grade homework, and generally not have your act together and the students may still feel great about the class if you roll really high on charisma. Or you can be very organized and responsive, even if you don’t roll too well on charisma. And sometimes characters balance both of those. But a bad roll has an impact on your students — for instance, it might make them less interested in working on the project, so they choose to spend their activity points in a way that doesn’t help get the project done.
But what about randomness? You know — those things that just … happen. Your computer hard-crashes and loses the 50 tabs you had open for your research. You get a call that your kid’s being sent home sick, and there goes the rest of the day. Or maybe you get an influx of new transcription volunteers when someone famous tweets about your project. Every time you roll the dice, at least one of the dice is a “randomness die”. If you roll a 1 — surprise! You get to roll a 20-sided die to see how good or bad the surprise is.
So you may be thinking, “This sounds interesting, but where’s the project management?” To tell the truth, the plan was to run the game twice, taking an opportunity to reflect on what went well and what didn’t (probably project management), and then making different choices the second time around. The problem was, we had twice as many players as I expected, and the real-world time required to get through game-time scales linearly with the number of players. And it didn’t feel right to force a game reboot in the middle of the quarter, when we had only made it through December, and weren’t even done with all the OCR.
But, you know, even though it didn’t work out to have an explicit moment of reckoning that led to the explicit assignment of a project management role and a set of formal processes, I think the DH RPG worked as a way to get at two things that are essential to project management, but get almost no attention in most curricula: empathy and imagination.
Every budget is an act of imagination. Same with every grant proposal. And fundamentally, the biggest challenges you’ll face in project management rarely have to do with things or technology, but with people. It’s easy to get frustrated with people who don’t follow through with their tasks and milestones, but playing the DHRPG makes it easier to understand how people choose to allocate their time, and why. It can also serve as a space for understanding why people work on projects, and what that project work means for them personally and professionally. Those experiences, even with imaginary characters, can translate to the real world.
I last saw my students in person on March 5th. We took it to a vote whether or not to include coronavirus in our imaginary world — yeses won, barely, and I’m glad they did. The last two class sessions — including the final dice-roll for tenure — happened virtually. The librarian character had to roll the dice to see if her non-citizen husband would make it back from France before the restrictions were enforced — her roll was okay, but not great, so her husband made it in but was quarantined for two weeks on the opposite side of the country, cutting her productivity to near-zero while she solo-wrangled her small children.
And here we are. This course meant a lot to me, and — I learned later — to many of my students. I’ll probably be teaching it again — dare I hope, in person even? — in fall 2021. If you want to incorporate your own take on the DHRPG into your course or workshop before then, let’s talk! All the materials are posted on GitHub at https://github.com/quinnanya/dlcl205.