Thoughts on HUMlab and "A Room of Our Own"

Today I attended a presentation about HUMlab from Patrik Svensson of Umea University.  He offered some thoughts on trends in the field of Digital Humanities, basing his ideas on his recent series of articles for DHQ.  What kept running through my mind after his presentation were the images he showed of the HUMlab facility.  It reminded me of the spaces created by many dot-com startups back in the mid-90s.  Places to play hard and work hard.  Places without typical boundaries or typical furniture.  Places with a mixture of high-tech and hands-on.  Places to eat and talk.   Places to meet in ‘real-life’ and places to meet virtually.  Patrik said that much of the success of HUMlab stemmed from its central campus location,  from its open-ness to any discipline and to the community.

His talk came just a few days after an oft-tweeted post at SampleReality about (the demise of) DH Centers, and a call to continue collaboration even when institutional funding is dry.  On Mark’s post I dropped a comment about the loss of UCI’s Humanitech (which, I should note, is not completely gone, but has been ‘archived’ into a new institutional entity called The Humanities Collective).

But back to Patrik’s talk.  Much of the discussion centered around how to garner funding for DH–either that the digital seemed to draw more funds for the traditional Humanities or that it was a liability to the Humanities because it replicated existing hierarchical structures rather than decentralizing knowledge-production.   My contribution to the discussion was to explain how most of us DH graduate students are doing our work entirely sans institutional funding.  I offered the example of my podcast, which I pay for out of my own pocket.  I do it because I love the work, not because I’m being supported by anyone to do so.  My blogging and twittering are more of the same–done for the pleasure of writing and of creativity.  Over the years I’ve found a wide variety of free or low-cost spaces to experiment with Digital Humanities, such as my most recent joint effort to create a SoCal DH hub.  Occasionally I’ve considered applying for a grant for my work–thinking how nice it would be to have the resources for a professionally-designed website, a dedicated server, or added collaborative functionality.  But in most instances I’ve been unable to apply for such funds because they are limited to non-profit organizations or faculty.  Apparently a lone grad student’s efforts are not DH-grant fodder.

I can only fantasize about how satisfying it might be to have an institutional space like HUMlab to support my DH efforts and to collaborate with other scholars–a “room of our own” for the Digital Humanities at UCI.  However, History grad students don’t have office space of any kind unless they are TAs, much less the kind of tech-rich environment of the HUMlab (as an example: when we wanted a printer in our shared grad student office space, we each contributed $5 to pay for it).   Because I’ve had outside funding for the past few years I don’t have a workspace on campus–my “office” is my sofa.  While it’s awfully cozy, it doesn’t put academic resources close-at-hand.

Perhaps I should count myself lucky to not have  access to a space like HUMlab–in its place I’ve created a vibrant online community.  At any moment I can crowdsource the expertise of a wide variety of digital humanists, or I can seek out a sympathetic audience on my blog.  But I still can’t help but consider how having a dedicated space for work and creativity might augment my scholarly endeavors.  Maybe that’s why I spend so much time anticipating academic conferences–they offer the stimulation and collegiality that I just don’t find in my living room.

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