Safe Spaces and Kind Words

Every generation has to kill the dragon, or so the saying goes.

I disagree.

I may be starting a new chapter in my life, but I refuse to slam the door behind me.

If I am privileged, then I owe that privilege to my teachers — female and male — who took time out of their busy lives and frantic production schedules to answer my questions, critique my data models, debug my programs, and tweak my code.

I am lucky. By the time I got to the Scholars’ Lab, I was on my fifth dissertation prospectus. Feelings of isolation and unworthiness, those constant companions in graduate school, were beginning to reach critical levels. I have a vivid memory of meeting Bess Sadler (then head of R&D), talking with her, and then watching her turn to Joe Gilbert and say “She is one of us!” No one had said anything like that to me in . . . well . . . years.

When I started my fellowship, I hadn’t written a computer program in seven years. Bess started to teach me Ruby on Rails, and when she realized that I didn’t know HTML and had never even heard of Information Design, she gave me books on those topics as well. When Bess left the Scholars’ Lab for another position in the library I panicked, until I realized that the new head of R&D, Matt Mitchell, was just as happy to work with me and so was his successor, Wayne Graham.

And behind it all was Bethany Nowviskie. Triple-booked most days of the week, tweeting intriguing project links and encouraging words faster than I could follow, and always working on some new way to bring more people under the big tent of DH, Bethany fostered community wherever she went.

And she is still doing it. The Scholars’ Lab has undergone an almost complete staff turnover since I started my fellowship in the Fall of 2008, but it remains the same welcoming and challenging community where I found my intellectual home.

Programming was the least important skill I learned in those years hanging out on the 4th Floor of Alderman Library. I learned how to work collaboratively, not just with software developers, but with Archeologists, Musicologists, and Literary Theorists. My fellow fellows challenged my assumptions about evidence and argument and helped me craft a rhetoric that (hopefully) breaks out of my own disciplinary boundaries.

Sixteen months ago, I knocked on Bethany’s open door to ask if she had any time to meet with me in the next week. I had come to the realization that I no longer wanted to be a history professor and had been freaking out. A huge, gentle (though slightly mischievous) smile spread over her face, and for the first time since I had printed out the job postings from the AHA website, I relaxed.

Last summer, surrounded by boxes in my new apartment in Boston, I saw Bethany’s offer to include in her Tenure and Promotion Dossier any and all DMs sent in before the deadline. I cleared off a chair, thought for a while, and then wrote the following:

D nowviskie is my model for scholarly creativity and collaboration. With wisdom and kindness she creates safe spaces for people to flourish

To quote Charles Dickens, “May that be said of us, and all of us!”

2 thoughts on “Safe Spaces and Kind Words

  1. Jean, on behalf of all of us at the Scholars’ Lab, thank you SO much for this very kind and unexpected post! I know that Bess, Joe, Matt, and Wayne will be just as touched as I am. I’m reading it this morning in the context of Sheila Brennan’s terrific We Are RRCHNM, on the 18-year history of collaborative work by our friends and partners at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. I was telling Sheila last night how much I hope that the Scholars’ Lab — now just 5 years past the ribbon-cutting and 4 years since I came in to direct things — will grow up in that mold, lasting and with as much kindness, diversity, and richness. I was asked to share my “strategic direction” with colleagues at UVa Library not too long ago, and I said that we want to be about building up people, and sending them out into the world, as much as we build and disseminate projects. So that’s where things like #geoinst, and your grad fellowships, and our new Praxis Program come from. With grad student support, or training of various kinds of professionals, it’s obvious that the plan is for them to go out into the wider world. But this “strategery” also relates to the staff turnover you mention from our early years. Some of those people moved into new roles because we incubated a project that outgrew “R&D” and earned them promotions and took them with it — and others because they had space built into their jobs to develop new skills and discover new loves. This is A-OK with me, and I know it will continue! The important thing — and it’s something we discuss in the office a lot — is that our core ethos of generosity and equal partnership and mutual support endures, as people come in and out of the picture — learn and grow and leave. I know I speak for everybody when I say how very, very happy we are that you felt that at the SLab.

  2. Jean,
    Thank-you, thank-you for writing this! You have, as usual, said it so much better than I could in my perpetual state of awkwardness. I have been following the various “coding” posts for the last couple of days, and I think this is a wonderful response.
    Although my path to the Scholar’s Lab was a bit different, I had a similar experience once there. I felt, for the first time, that I was becoming a scholar in my own right. The enthusiasm the Scholar’s Lab staff showed for my project buoyed my spirits at a time when it was most-needed. I was thrilled to have an opportunity for real cross-disciplinary conversation and collaboration. As I listened to Jean go from theory to code, and back again, I was immensely impressed, and more than a little intimidated. I quickly got over the intimidation as I received nothing but support and positive, constructive feedback.
    The Scholar’s Lab also opened up the world of Digital Humanities to me. Although I’d worked on creating a digital archive for several years, I didn’t know much about Digital Humanities in the broader sense. I have, in the intervening years felt the push/pull of DH versus the more traditional demands of academia acutely. Given the demands of my very traditional department, learning to code has unfortunately been relegated to my post-dissertation to-do list. Not a situation I’m happy about. I was excited to see the Praxis Program get up and running in the Scholar’s Lab. One more safe place for young scholars to learn how to build bridges. I have followed, as much as one can, the dizzying pace of DH growth, always amazed at Bethany’s energy in particular (seriously, how does she do it?!?!). As I near the job market, I now find the prospect of an “alt-academic” career more and more appealing. I could go on, but I’ll stop there. Many thanks Jean for this wonderful post.

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