Let the Grant Do the Talking

On December 3, 2012 I spent a day talking with a community arts organization, the New Urban Arts Center, that takes a different approach to their arts education and humanities-driven mission than most arts and humanities funders are accustomed to supporting. We talked about the ways that the organization constantly needs to explain its process-driven approach to art to those not intimately involved at the Center. In doing so, they are educating supporters and funders to their humanities-driven educational community praxis.

This type of educating and guiding also is required of digital humanists when demonstrating the value of their scholarship and scholarly contributions to digital processes, code, sites, tools, et al. The approaches are new and not fully accepted and integrated into academic departments, or into most cultural heritage institutions, that are used to assessing value and impact in different ways. Non-digital humanists are capable of assessing scholarship in digital formats, but we still need to guide them into understanding in the type of work we do and the meaning that it holds.

We cannot assume that our work stands alone, particularly when we are implementing new methods and types of scholarships. We have to constantly talk about our work to different audiences so as to guide colleagues, a committee, or a department how to read and understand the digital work before them. Writing in a plain style and illustrating in plain design, should articulate the complexity of thought required by a review committee, while also demonstrating that the digital work we do is grounded in our humanities training. That style is most often incorporated into grant proposals and products.

One way to present digital humanities work could be to let grant proposals and related reports or white papers do some of the talking for us, because those forms of writing already provide intellectual rationales behind digital projects and illustrate the theory in practice.

At the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, when we introduce new staff to our projects we generally ask them to read through a funded grant proposal and, if applicable, reports, and products (most often published as a website). Why not try this approach with a review committee?

Funded proposals, after all, are peer-reviewed publications and peer-accepted rationales for pursuing research work. Grant proposals, particularly ones that receive federal monies, are more heavily scrutinized by a larger number of experts than would ever peer review a prospectus or a draft manuscript for a publisher. Receipt of funding equals a nod of approval from leaders in the field that the rationale proposed is grounded, and that the project will have some real impact on the field or fields in which it is nestled.

This style and tone of writing is different than what one uses for a journal article, but a proposal similarly requires that the author, or authors, persuasively constructs and supports an argument to fund a new digital project or pursue research. The authors must illuminate how the digital humanities project is unique among the sea of other digital humanities projects and how it is meaningful for the targeted audience by demonstrating knowledge of a field through literature reviews and environmental scans.

If you’re writing for the National Endowment for the Humanities, for example, you must position your work, be it a content project, employing digital methodologies, or building a tool, deeply within humanities scholarship. To do so, those conceptualizing a project must also provide a rationale that explains methodological choices and generates scholarly use cases for how the specific project will be or might be used by others pursuing their own humanities work.

Proposals also must be written in a style that is free of jargon, while also explicitly describing methodologies and technologies incorporated into creating the project. By writing in plain style, proposal authors are also opening a door into understanding for non-specialists of what the project does and how it can “count” as research and scholarship.

Progress from proposal to finished product can be traced in interim and final reports. Reports detail the work done during a specific time period and, importantly, reports are often the place where a project manager or director discusses diversions and revisions of the work detailed in a proposal. In some cases, final reports are useful places for project teams to reflect on how well the project achieved its goals and explain where the team may have diverted from the proposal in intellectual and methodological approaches and outcomes. Again, the style of a report is such that non-specialists should be able to understand what is happening during the life of a grant.

If you are not doing grant-funded work, could it make sense to follow guidelines from an NEH-Office of Digital Humanities grant, or by modeling a final grant report as ways to describe your work in a portfolio?

Grants also produce specific deliverables, and it seems logical to present those pieces of scholarly digital work that are designed for a specific medium to a committee for review in that digital environment. Again, this may require additional work on the part of the scholar to open up the medium, whether through some documentation of method or by creating a digital entry point for reviewers (a sandbox, perhaps) to examine where the work happens. Additionally, a conference presentation or process paper that is published to one’s or a project’s blog might explain and provide that visual guide through the method and medium in which the work was produced.

In some ways, this is my case for creating better documentation for using the digital projects we build. We need to do a better job (generally, because there are some good exceptions) of talking about digital methodologies and projects to non-specialist audiences. This helps to encourage those eager to test out our methods, but who aren’t quite sure how to start. And, opens up this seemingly-difficult-to-decipher work to our colleagues and those assessing our work.


Originally published by Sheila Brennan on December 4, 2012.

About Sheila Brennan

Sheila is the Associate Director of Public Projects at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, and Research Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University. She completed her Ph.D. in U.S. history at Mason in 2010. She earned her Bachelor's degree from Bates College and Master's from the University of Notre Dame in American Studies. Prior to coming to CHNM in 2005, she worked as the Director of Education and Public Programs at the U.S. Navy Museum in Washington, DC for seven years. Her research interests include public history, digital history, museums and material culture, popular collecting practices in the U.S., and late-19th and early-20th-century cultural history. She currently is the end user coordinator for Omeka, and has managed many digital projects, including the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank and Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives projects. She has co-authored essays on teaching the history of technology, doing oral history in the digital age, and on the challenges of online collection projects. She has published on made several presentations on museum education, digital history, and online collecting and archiving, and stamp collecting. She blogs at: Lot 49.