By: Liz Timbs
A year ago, I don’t think I could have participated in a roundtable on Digital Southern African Studies, because I still didn’t really feel like I knew what it meant to be a “digital scholar.” While I had attended George Mason University for my Master’s and knew, in general terms, about the work that was being done at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, I wasn’t really involved at all. It wasn’t until last August, when I became a Cultural Heritage Informatics (CHI) Fellow with MATRIX: Center for Digital Humanities and Social Science here at Michigan State University, that I really started to see the major value and benefits of digital scholarship.
The CHI program was designed to
offer Michigan State University graduate students in departments and programs with an emphasis on cultural heritage the methodological skills necessary creatively and thoughtfully apply information, communication, and computing technology to cultural heritage materials, address key challenges in cultural heritage, influence the current state of digital cultural heritage, and become thought leaders for the future of digital cultural heritage.
To achieve these goals, fellows spend the first semester learning about project management, data visualizations, coding languages, and a number of other foundational concepts for building our digital know-how. At the same time, Ethan Watrall, the program director, expects us to conceptualize and develop a plan for building our own digital projects. For quite some time, I was really at a loss for the kind of project I wanted to build. But an idea came to me in an October 2013 session of the Football Scholars Forum on Peter Alegi and Chris Bolsmann’s new book, Africa’s World Cup: Critical Reflections on Play, Patriotism, Spectatorship, and Space. During the online discussion, the conversation turned to ways of integrating academically-oriented essays like those in Africa’s World Cup with web-based images, videos, and texts produced by non-specialists for a general audience. While this idea was initially framed in terms of what could be done for next year’s World Cup in Brazil, the historian in me started thinking about how a project like this could help further understand the 2010 World Cup. And that is how Imbiza: A Digital Repository of the 2010 World Cup (version 1.0) was born.
My first real challenge in building this repository was finding items to use. I really thought this would be a more difficult process, but, luckily, thanks to the vibrant social media presence of the Football Scholars Forum, I was able to reach out via Twitter, soliciting contributions and ideas. This online community, spearheaded by my graduate adviser Peter Alegi, re-tweeted my calls for proposals, submitted their own materials, and helped me find new and exciting resources (See the Storify of these conversations here). Duane Jethro, a scholar living in Cape Town, and I connected, fostering discussion about the project and resulting in him sharing a large selection of newspaper clippings on the tournament. This summer, Duane and I actually got to meet in person while I was in Cape Town and our friendship, born in Twitter and sustained in person, continues to be incredibly beneficial to me as a scholar (I hope the same is true for him!) I was able to connect with Davy Patrick Lane, who has allowed me to use all of his materials from his blog. Chris Bolsmann has allowed me to use his massive collection of high-quality photographs. Finally, Marc Fletcher, a scholar living in Johannesburg, like Lane, has given me access to the materials on his blog, as well as offered to provide some much-needed advice. Before I realized it, I had more material than I knew what to do with and was left with the task of organizing these materials and figuring out what I wanted this amorphous project that only existed in my mind to look like once it was out there for the world to see.
The first step was to decide on the best system to organize and catalog the photos and videos that I received. This was probably the most time-consuming task; settling on a metadata scheme (I settled on the Dublin Core standards), making entries for each individual object (utilizing KORA: The Digital Repository and Publishing Platform) , arranging them by category, and beginning to conceptualize how they could all be grouped together as the site progressed. In a lot of ways, this process was the same as I would have done for a major research project. I gathered data, organized them in a way that made sense to me, and began to think about how I would present my findings to the public, though this time I had to think beyond the written word to the public face that would represent my research and findings. Using a WordPress framework, I began to build a skeleton of what my project would eventually become.
I had an image in my mind from the very beginning of what I wanted Imbiza to look like, but that initial thought looks nothing like what you see today. The photos and videos that I collected completely shifted my vision of the project, as did the limitations of time and my technical capabilities. A few times, my conceptualization changed out of necessity; at one point in the development process, I had to re-install the entire site due to a programming error (one practical note for digital work: always, always back up and do so frequently). At times, things shifted just because I decided I didn’t like my design anymore. But, eventually, mainly because time was running out, I settled on a design. And when I say settled, I mean settled. There’s a reason I call this Imbiza 1.0; I’m not totally happy with it yet. The theme I chose, even with the numerous modifications that I applied to it, was limited in terms of its functionality. I have more materials that need to be cataloged and added to the site. And, as is the case with many research projects (at least in my experience) there were a lot of elements that I initially planned for the repository that ended up on the cutting room floor. But that’s generally how big projects go, digital or not; the difference was that I had to put this unfinished project online for the (interested) world to see, before I was totally done. For a perfectionist like myself, this was a bitter pill to swallow but it also taught me to be transparent about my work–admitting mistakes, owning up to them and moving forward towards a better version 2.0.
Building Imbiza taught me a lot about a variety of things, from digital repository composition to geospatial visualization to the importance of time management, but I won’t bore you all with those details (if you really want to know, you can read about some of my headaches over on the CHI blog). What building Imbiza taught me the most about, however, is good scholarship. The very public nature of this project, being “born digital” and chronicled through various digital platforms, forced me to be transparent and reflective about my work. So many times, academics tend to be very secretive and insular about their projects, only exposing their work through conference presentations or articles (which only come out after months–and sometimes years–of peer review and edits) or in monographs. In 2012, Alex Sayf Cummings and Jonathan Jarrett argued that digital publishing
can offer real benefits to the process of writing as an outlet for expression that is freer and faster than traditional publishing and it provides an arena for collaboration and discussion that can serve the same varied purposes as a graduate school cohort, a writing group, or the peer review process. It also reaches a public for whom our work is otherwise mediated solely by journalists, and thus allows us to demonstrate the writing of history as a worthwhile, entertaining and important thing to do with an intellectual life. These are not small gains.
I would argue that this is true not only of digital publishing (putting text on screens instead of on paper) but also of digital scholarship. The amount of collaboration and discussion that I enjoyed while working on Imbiza was unlike any interactions that I have experienced in any kind of traditional scholarly exercise. Being open with friends and colleagues about my pitfalls and stumbles, while initially terrifying, nearly always resulted in positive and constructive engagement that only made my project better. As Ryan Cordell reflected in a 2012 ProfHacker blog, I too have found that “the more open I have been with my scholarship online, the more professional doors have opened to me.” My own experience with building and utilizing digital pathways, be it through Twitter, blogging, networking for Imbiza, or participating in the Football Scholars Forum, has been nothing but an enhancement to my development as a scholar, even if it was initially terrifying. Working out in the open for everyone to see forced me to think about the way I do my work, moving away from a concern with just the final product and towards a more concerted effort to engage with others in ways that I typically shy away from. This has trickled over into my non-digital work as well, as I have found myself more willing to seek advice and insights from others. And I think these lessons translate into more than just my digital scholarship, but into my advancement and development as a historian-in-training and dedicated Southern Africanist more generally.
So now, in my second year with CHI, I can proudly declare myself a digital scholar. I maintain an active social media presence (follow me on Twitter @tizlimbs) and blog regularly on my own personal site, as well as Football Is Coming Home. I’ve been able to take a course on South African History in a Digital Age with my adviser, Peter Alegi. I have also worked as a teaching assistant for Peter’s digital Culture of Soccer course for two summers in a row (read more about this here). I am working as a graduate assistant in MSU’s newly launched Lab for Education and Advancement in Digital Research, consulting with faculty on integrating more digital methods into their courses and aiding students in executing various projects. And I am still working on Imbiza 2.0. It’s a work in progress, for sure, and I’m excited to embark on the next phase with all of the highs and lows that are guaranteed to come along with it.
I look forward to discussing all of these issues with you all next week in Vermont!