Expanding Communities of Practice

The materials featured in this sixth issue of the Journal of Digital Humanities expose “communities of practice” in digital humanities beyond the constellations of people and institutions directly engaged in experimental and digitally-inflected scholarship. Communities of practice, socially constructed groups that form around shared interests or crafts, often generate forms of tacit knowledge that circulate informally. What distinguishes the works herein is their articulation of tacit knowledge produced during the course of project development. While they originate in diverse sites of digital humanities scholarship, these project strategically engage contingent audiences. Furthermore, each details conscious decisions that tailor its approach to collaborative creation and implementation.

A digital humanities project itself, JDH is both a member of and an advocate for the active and ever-growing community of scholars, professionals, and students who publish, share, and discuss their work on the open web. Supported by the efforts and interests of over 10,000 readers and 175 editors, JDH draws on contributions from graduate students, teachers, researchers, librarians, cultural heritage professionals, technologists, and others who surface material for Digital Humanities Now, our affiliated, curated weekly publication. The first six issues of JDH alone represent contributions by over 100 authors and ten faculty and graduate student staff editors.

By providing a formal publication venue for high-quality and salient digital humanities scholarship, JDH aims to broaden our communities of practice. We distribute gray literature that is timely and relevant, including scholarly research that utilizes digital tools or methods, provocations that thoughtfully engage the nuances and interrelated contexts of digital and traditional humanistic inquiry, and reports that reflect on intellectual and pragmatic project decisions. In doing so, we hope to historicize, contextualize, and make more transparent the often obscured or seemingly intuitive practices of digital humanities communities.

In the pieces that follow, each author explores situations that required balancing critical theory, the needs of the projects’ constituents, and the mixed opportunities and constraints presented by a respective technology. Trey Conatser designed a composition course around a rhetorically-oriented markup scheme and, as a result, taught writing as a “metacognitive, iterative, and collaborative process.” In “Changing Medium, Transforming Composition” Conatser argues that his XML-based composition course disrupted students’ schemas for writing as they collaboratively encoded, revised, and shared documents. Rooted in a similar collaborative impulse, Kathryn Tomasek recounts the needs and challenges faced by social science historians and archivists as they develop TEI markup standards for manuscript financial records. Tomasek reports preliminary findings that suggest a shared markup strategy has the potential to preserve the semantic values and tabular formatting of manuscript financial records for an invested community of scholars.

Looking beyond the walls of the academy, MediaNOLA connects students and researchers to the localized community of New Orleans and Tulane University. Vicki Mayer and Mike Griffith narrate the theory, rationale, and needs they considered while developing a community-centered platform for preserving and disseminating crowd-sourced stories of cultural production in New Orleans. Mayer and Griffiths describe collaborations between members of the project development team, initiatives to integrate service-learning into the university, and their successes reaching out to community partners. Candidly addressing choices about platforms and content development, Mayer and Griffiths’s work suggests best practices for others interested in digital humanities projects that rely on community engagement.

Similarly, this issue’s reviews highlight open-source tools created for digital humanists by digital humanists. Chuck Rybak considers his experience using CUNY’s Commons In A Box as a community building, sharing, and publishing tool to expand students’ sense of audience and to showcase multiple modes of humanistic inquiry. Rybak found that Commons In A Box encouraged students to write for a public audience by creating wiki resources, engaging in discussions, and making them the owners of their own educational data. Amber N. Wiley reviews her integration of MediaNOLA into her architecture course. Wiley’s students contributed their original, scholarly research to help the New Orleans community preserve its place-based and musical cultural heritage. Projects like MediaNOLA, Wiley asserts, provide architecture a central place in digital humanities, as well as contemporary public history practice.

Each project highlighted in this issue occupies a different place within diverse and overlapping communities of practice, and were chosen with the “community sourcing” component of the JDH mission in mind. Gray literature found in institutional repositories, white papers produced for federal grant organizations, and conference talks all highlight tacit knowledge that, without a venue like JDH, might otherwise be inaccessible. For example, Conatser originally presented his course design at a campus talk, before revising it into a blog post for the HASTAC network of scholars, and then making further revisions for publication in JDH. Mayer and Griffith and Tomasek’s papers are drawn from an open repository of National Endowment for the Humanities white papers. Grant programs such as NEH’s Start-up Grants or Institute of Museum and Library Services’s Spark Grants require white papers that review the grant’s success, while other funders request narratives and reports. These grant-based materials deserve wider attention and circulation, as Sheila Brennan argues in her Fall 2012 article for JDH, because they “provide intellectual rationales behind digital projects and illustrate the theory in practice.”

Gray literature, such as these white papers, are less familiar forms of scholarly communication to humanists, whose research practices rarely include searching institutional repositories or federal databases. Yet the students, faculty, professionals, funders, and administrators looking for ways to become involved or informed about digital humanities can benefit from their wider and more visible recirculation. Our purpose is two-fold. First, we want to encourage, recognize, and improve the sharing of high-quality, open scholarship that addresses project management, development, theorization, and contextualization by distributing it to a larger and invested audience. Second, we believe that providing a formal publication venue for such scholarship moves tacit knowledge beyond closed circulation networks and serves a constant influx of new scholars into the “community of practice.”

The Journal of Digital Humanities remains committed to improving upon existing publication practices as it aggregates content, brings scholarly work to formal publication more rapidly, and encourages more broadly the circulation of exemplary scholarship of lasting interest to the evolving, expanding, and always reconstituting community of readers interested in digital humanities. We are proud of JDH for being one of the largest collaborative digital humanities projects, but also for its ability to continually surface thoughtful examples of the broad scope of digital humanities practice.

Joan Fragaszy Troyano and Lisa M. Rhody, Editors