Working with Students on DH Projects

I have recently recruited 6 students to work on a digital archival exhibit at my university. In this post, I’m going to share how the team grew to that size, how the students and I decided what their role would be on the project, and offer some general advice on student collaboration on DH projects.

“Women of Rosenwald: Curating Social Justice 1928-1948” started as a result of my postdoctoral fellowship at Fisk University. I began researching the project in Fall 2018 based on the suggestions of the Special Collections librarian and the Dean of the John Hope And Aurelia E. Franklin Library at Fisk. The exhibit focuses on the narratives of ten African-American female Rosenwald Fellows who broke professional barriers and gave back to their communities in the fields of music, fashion, literature, sculpture, painting, and dance. (You can read more about the project in the document below.)

Working independently on the first part of this project was a necessary step. I needed the time to decide on the format (an exhibit), platform (Omeka), and organization before making the move to train students in archival research and digital curation. By the time the Spring 2019 semester arrived, I felt confident enough to start inviting student collaborators.

The first two students joined the project somewhat organically. I was lucky enough to have a couple of staff and faculty members who were excited enough about the project to share it with students. One student caught wind of the Rosenwald exhibit and became interested enough to co-curate one of the 10 sub-exhibits with me. After working through a portion of the exhibit together, she is now spearheading a section of her own based on her research interests in the overlaps of song and poetry in the Black Power movement in the US. Another student joined after I heard her impressive work on a student research panel of which I was the judge (Fisk holds an annual research symposium). As a panelist, she presented her work on the history of HBCUs with a focus on the era that encompassed the dates of the Rosenwald project. I spoke with her about the project after the panel and she expressed interest in joining the exhibit team. Now, she is researching the relationship between the Julius Rosenwald Fund and Dr. Charles S. Johnson, the first African-American president of Fisk University, as her Honors project at Fisk. Her work will feature as a page of the final website that explores the history between Fisk University and the Rosenwald Fund.

The last 4 students joined the project after I circulated an “Undergraduate Research Assistant” advertisement through campus resources. Our Special Collections librarian suggested that I reach out to our Corporate and University Relations Specialist who advertises job and research opportunities through the university’s student engagement office. After sending out the position announcement (see below), I received emails from roughly 8 interested students. I was shocked and delighted by how many students were interested in the project. The next questions to consider were (1) how many students can feasibly join the project?, and (2) what will their roles be?

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This is the document that I circulated to undergraduates at Fisk.

The answers to those questions took some time to decide, but it was worth finagling schedules and exchanging (many!) emails to arrive at a final schedule. I decided to host a meeting where I presented the project in more detail and gave students options on ways in which they could contribute to the project. Then, I handed out notecards to ask about their availability and how they preferred to contribute based on their interests and career aspirations. Now, we have a solid team of 6 dedicated students who are contributing in ways that are beneficial for them and for the project. 

In a recent Mellon Partners for Humanities Education Workshop, we talked about developing digital humanities projects at teaching-focused institutions. In the workshop, Dr. Madeleine Casad, the Associate Director of the Vanderbilt Digital Humanities Center and workshop leader, brought up the pivotal point that students (and all DH contributors) must be given due recognition in the final project. From the beginning, I told students that everyone would get credit as “Contributors” on the website with a photo, bio, and a description of their specific contribution to the site. I am also hoping to host an on-campus exhibit “launch” in which students can present and celebrate their work. Dr. Casad also suggested holding a conversation about digital identity and online presence, so I plan to talk to my students about the option of being an anonymous contributor or using a pseudonym in the “Contributors” section.

It’s also important to consider how students will be compensated for their work. I had spoken with students about offering independent study credit for our collaboration, but this is often not a preferred option because of the tuition dollars necessary for course credit. At the workshop, someone suggested applying for grants to finance student work, and this is an option that I would like to more thoroughly research in the future. Currently, the student team is getting a line on their CV/resume for their contributions and I am working diligently to be able to offer them volunteer hours so that they can use the project to fulfill a university requirement.

Based on what I’ve learned, here is some easily-digestible general advice on student collaboration on DH projects:

  1. Ask colleagues if they know any students with the digital or research skills necessary to collaborate on your project. Or, you may already have students in your own courses who might be interested.
  2. Craft a position description (“undergraduate research assistant,” “student collaborator,” etc.) that describes the ways in which you envision students contributing to the project and how you hope they will benefit from their work. You might consider asking students for their resumes or writing samples to pre-determine ways in which they would best contribute.
  3. Meet with interested students (group meetings save time) and decide if, how, and when they will contribute to the project. Their availability, interest, and quality of work will determine the extent of their collaboration.
  4. Make a calendar. Set up meeting times for training and co-working sessions, as well as a long-term calendar with student responsibilities and projected deadlines. (You might consider using Asana (free option) or CoSchedule (paid only). I went with the old-fashioned printed calendar on paper.)
  5. Reflect on ways to ensure smooth communication. Do you want to set up a Slack channel or make a group Trello board? Would it be beneficial to create a Google docs folder in which you can share information (e.g. notes, metadata format, etc.)?
  6. Consider having students sign a “Collaborators’ Bill of Rights” to make sure they are fully benefitting from this experience (this was a smart piece of advice shared by Dr. Casad).
  7. Think about ways in which students will benefit from their work: Can you offer them payment? If you do not have the research funds to pay them, could you apply for a grant to finance their contributions? Can you offer them volunteer hours or independent credit?
  8. Know that generating a team of student contributors takes time, but this is time well spent—especially if you are working at a teaching-focused institution. Once you’ve finalized the details, you will have hopefully created a well-oiled engine that will move smoothly (and more quickly) toward the project completion date.

Happy collaborating!

Have you ever worked with students on a DH Project? I’d love to hear about your successes, obstacles, and methods. Comment below or tweet to us @SmartWomenWrite.

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