In what follows, Renée Alexander Craft, associate professor, Department of Communication and Curriculum in Global Studies, and Pam Lach, then associate director of the Digital Innovation Lab, both at UNC, describe the various elements of their digital humanities collaboration. Some of the sections are written together and some by either Alexander Craft or Lach individually, as indicated.—Editors
In 2010, one of the graduate students in my qualitative methods course entitled Critical/Performance Ethnography asked me how my current research reflected the course's title. In the weeks leading up to her question, the class had focused on the works of performance theorists, activists, and critical ethnographers Dwight Conquergood (1991; 2002) and D. Soyini Madison (2005). In his preeminent essay, "Performance Studies, Interventions and Radical Research," Conquergood (2002) called for "an ethnography of the ears and heart," where knowledge must be "located," "engaged," and "forged from solidarity with, not separation from, the people" (2002, 149; italics in the original). He theorized this standpoint as "dialogical performance." Dialogical performance serves as a cornerstone for engaged, community-centered research that "struggles to bring together different voices, world views, value systems, and beliefs so that they can have a conversation with one another" (2002, 9). Critical/performance ethnography serves as a method of dialogical performance that informs the praxes of fieldwork, scholarly analysis, and public dissemination of findings. A commitment to public engagement is at the center of critical/performance ethnographic work.
At the time of the student's question, I was working on a monograph based on my research, entitled When the Devil Knocks: The Congo Tradition and the Politics of Blackness in 20th Century Panama, which was published in January 2015 as a part of The Ohio State University Press's Black Performance and Cultural Criticism series.
The Congo tradition of Portobelo, Panama is a cultural practice that emerged as a performative response to enslavement in Panama. Congo traditions celebrate the resistance of Los Cimarrones, formerly enslaved Africans who escaped to the hills and rainforests of the Americas and established independent communities during the Spanish colonial period. Los Cimarrones assisted English privateers and pirates to successfully sabotage Spanish colonial trade practices and they negotiated their own freedom. Once successful, they were no longer cimarron, meaning "wild" or "run-away." They were free Blacks, free Congos. While Congo was once an explicit ethnoracial term, contemporary practitioners use it to mark a cultural performance traditionally enacted by Afro-Colonial/Colonial Black communities as a celebration of their history and culture in Panama.
With attention to the Congo tradition's transition from marginal ethnic performance at the dawn of the twentieth century to national folklore at its twilight, When the Devil Knocks presents a partial history of the tradition as it exists in the living memory of Portobelo practitioners alongside a critical analysis of it as a performance of African diaspora identity and culture within a Panamanian socio-historical frame. In doing so, it necessarily attends to shifts in national discourses about Blackness, citizenship, and belonging over the course of the country's first century as a republic. Finally, it examines the Congo tradition's circulation within the political economy of contemporary tourism.
Since I began my research in Portobelo, Panama fifteen years ago, my praxis of field research has flowed through my relationships with small local and transnational African diaspora cultural arts organizations and institutions. These include: Taller Portobelo, the Portobelo, Panama-based painting workshop of Congo artists; the Spelman College Summer Art Colony, a three-week program that creates collaborative opportunities for emerging and established US artists/scholars to live and work alongside Congo artists in Portobelo; and Creative Currents: Art + Culture + Collaboration, an Atlanta-based, international collaborative of artists and scholars that focuses on the history, art, and culture of the African diaspora.
My scholarship benefits from my ability to work in Portobelo through collaborations that engage in art-making and public performance as processes of cultural analysis, commemoration, and preservation. Working within these various workshop models allows me to more fully participate in the vibrant exchange of skills, resources, and ideas that marks the cultural life of Portobelo. It also frames my collaborative public engagement within local performative traditions that actively stage critical dialogues about the socio-political realities of everyday life in Panama and the ways in which Congo carnival traditions animate and challenge them.
Although my published scholarship serves the Congo community of Portobelo, Panama by addressing an absence in the literature about their cultural contributions to the development of the republic and the cultural history of the Americas, I felt exposed by my student's question because I knew that my work did not yet effectively respond to a call from the community for a specific type of critical intervention—cultural preservation that might be more accessible and usable within the community. For years, I had shared my photographs and recordings on a small scale with local families, but that did not effectively contribute to a community-wide cultural preservation initiative. Originally, notions of how I might do that far exceeded my skills and resources. By the time the student posed the question to me, however, user-friendly, open-source digital tools and greater support—in the form of monetary resources, trained personnel, and expanding digital infrastructures within my home institution, as well as in Portobelo—allowed me to respond to the community's call through a digital intervention. So, instead of merely responding to the student's question based on where I thought the project succeeded as a work of critical/performance ethnography, I talked about the horizon of possibility still open for it. In doing so, I imagined aloud, for the first time, the broad strokes of what would become Digital Portobelo: Art + Scholarship + Cultural Preservation (digitalportobelo.org).
The purpose of this essay is to offer a critical reflection on the front stage and backstage processes that created Digital Portobelo in order to forefront the centrality of layered acts of translation to the types of collaborative processes that evince globally engaged scholarship in the digital humanities. Front stage refers to the humanities-driven research questions and processes that animate the project. It also names the project's forward-facing conceptual design. Backstage refers to the digital competencies, tools, and behind-the-scenes labor that produce the website, as well as the interdependent constellation of teams that make it possible. With Digital Portobelo as its focus, this essay engages with the following questions: How can we build digital rubrics that reflect the dynamism of community-engaged scholarship through qualitative research and extend our collaborative potential? What are the processes of translation necessary in order to render deeply contextual qualitative work across multiple embodied and virtual cultural contexts? How might staging these processes offer nuanced discussions about the cultural practices at the heart of community-engaged scholarship? How might this work expand upon, as well as challenge, the notion of open-access, particularly in its attempts to span the digital divide? And how does doing global digital humanities work highlight and underscore the limitations and assumptions embedded in digital humanities (DH) tools and practices? How does our work point to not only the linguistic limitations of our tools, but the cultural biases scaffolded in our platforms, processes, and methods?
Digital Portobelo is an interactive online collection of ethnographic interviews, photos, videos, artwork, and archival material that illuminates the rich culture and history of Portobelo. 2 Created in collaboration with Pam Lach, then Associate Director of the Digital Innovation Lab (DIL) at UNC, and a research team that included DIL staff, graduate students, and undergraduates, Digital Portobelo aspires to serve as a public platform to allow researchers and community members to address pertinent questions and find answers together. Ultimately, it seeks to: 1. establish a dual language (English/Spanish) digital space for researchers to return the stories and interviews we have collected to the population most intimately connected with them; 2. foster a collaborative digital environment in which community members and an international group of researchers may share information, correct absences and errors, and create ongoing dialogues related to Congo traditions and culture; 3. create a mechanism for local community members to archive and share their cultural practices and memories; 4. develop skills in the local community for recording and studying oral history through a curriculum on media literacy and production; 5. contribute to the growing body of work on AfroLatin history and culture as well as the complexity of Panamanian history and culture; and 6. establish a new digital resource through which to study Afro-Latin history and culture.
With $15,000 of funding and additional in-kind support, my research team and I worked in collaboration with the DIL for over a year to begin the process of not only digitizing audiotaped and videotaped interviews but also transcribing, translating, and digitally coding/tagging them, as well as creating a semiflexible organizational schema that would make the material searchable in ways that honored the dynamism of cultural terms and the plurality of identity claims. Moreover, we worked with digital specialists to design the website within a WordPress environment that would be more navigable to scholars, like me, with only a general knowledge of website logics, with the hope of creating a digital product that collaborators in the US and Panama could eventually be trained to access and augment without a centralized gatekeeper.
In December of 2013, my research team (http://digitalportobelo.org/home/project-team/) and I launched a prototype version of Digital Portobelo that reflects the first phase of the project. Built with the DIL's Digital Humanities toolkit (DH Press), Digital Portobelo blends a traditional WordPress website with a unique and dynamic way of interacting with oral histories—as data that can be visualized, or represented spatially, in a variety of configurations. It currently consists of an archive of nine digitized oral histories with accompanying text transcripts available as downloadable PDFs (http://digitalportobelo.org/archive/). Eight of the interviews included as of October 2015 are in Spanish or a combination of Spanish and English; each has both a Spanish and English transcript and includes a streaming audio file for listening. Audio is delivered through SoundCloud, but if users choose to listen directly in Digital Portobelo, they will be able to read a synchronized transcript—in Spanish and English—rolling along with the audio. To facilitate exploration and listening, we divided each interview into sections based on specific questions and/or themes. We then titled and described each section. This allows users to jump to any of these sections and immediately start listening. Each section or "chunk of data" is visually represented as a "topic card" in a gallery view (http://digitalportobelo.org/dhp-projects/digital-portobelo-interactive-project/).3 Thus, a single interview is visually represented as a collection of cards—each a data point with the following descriptive categories: Congo Spaces, Congo Characters, Congo Tradition, Ethnoracial Identity Discussed, Time Period.
Although the current site includes transcripts in Spanish and English, its main content remains in English. In order to allow Spanish-speaking audiences to better engage with the website, I am working with UNC's Southern Oral History Program to translate all of the site's content by June 2016.
In 2014, Digital Portobelo entered its second phase, aimed at encouraging intergenerational, intercultural, and interdisciplinary dialogues with existing research, as well as creating new material. In this phase, we focus on the development of a series of workshops, presentations, and dialogic encounters with and between the three communities most intimately connected to this project: 1. scholars who are focused on Afro-Latin identity and culture in the Americas; 2. practitioners and cultural preservationists who are interested in the potential of Digital Portobelo for this and allied projects; and 3) educators who are interested in the ways the project might serve as a pedagogical tool.
In addition, members of the Digital Portobelo team and I will return to Portobelo June–August 2016 in order to initiate a pilot community-based intergenerational oral history project, which will pair four-to-five upper middle and high school students with community elders in order to prompt local engagement with Digital Portobelo as an interactive repository and collaborative tool. This phase seeks to: 1. provide experiential training in the ethics and praxis of conducting, preserving, and sharing oral histories; 2. create opportunities for student/elder partners to discuss the relationship between the Congo tradition as represented in their lived experiences and as represented and analyzed in scholarly research; 3. provide a platform for community members to enter into dialogue with existing research through Digital Portobelo's social media tools; 4. provide the methodological tools necessary for each pair to conceptualize and conduct two oral history projects—one initiated by the student and the other by the elder; and 5. work with participants to incorporate artifacts from their personal and communal archives.
Phase two products will reflect the digital projects generated through the community-based intergenerational oral history initiative, which the participants and the Digital Portobelo team will collaboratively edit, transcribe, and curate. We will share these projects with the community through two performative presentations. The team will then integrate the projects into the Digital Portobelo website in 2016–2017.
The third phase, which overlaps with the first two, makes opportunities for high school and university students to engage with the primary source materials housed in the digital repository through their coursework by creating English/Spanish user guides to expand its accessibility and reach. As my team and I work to expand upon the pilot website, we also encourage feedback on the site's usability in order to strengthen it.
DH Press, the platform with which Digital Portobelo was created, is an open-source, easy-to-use toolkit for visualizing digital humanities objects and data. Designed by the Digital Innovation Lab (DIL) in collaboration with the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI), DH Press is a WordPress plugin available for download on the GitHub code repository (https://github.com/Digital-Innovation-Lab/dhpress). While technical users are invited to modify the codebase to suit their needs, DH Press is intended for nontechnical users who have their own or institutionally-hosted WordPress.org site. The DIL began technical development on the tool in spring 2012, and released version 1.0 in August 2013 and 2.0, a more stable and robust version of the plugin, the following year (https://github.com/Digital-Innovation-Lab/dhpress/releases).
At the heart of DH Press is a set of seven visualizations, or visual entry points: maps, topic cards, pinboards, timelines, trees, faceted browsers, and facet flows. Because DH Press was designed with nontechnical users in mind, and because of processing limitations with WordPress, the toolkit is not intended as a computationally driven analytics tool for big data. Rather, it is a presentation tool—a platform to visualize small-to-medium-sized humanistic data sets in order to facilitate exploration and discovery, ask questions, and spark conversations. Integrated into WordPress's robust content management system, it blends data visualization with narrative, analysis, and blogging.
We wanted to make DH Press as flexible as possible, in the hopes of it being used in ways even the design team could not envision. As a result, we decided not to impose a singular metadata standard, such as Dublin Core, in the system. We were concerned that a strict metadata structure would limit the possible uses of the tool, forcing projects to abandon cultural and conceptual nuances in order to fit into narrow boxes. While this potentially hampers data interoperability—the ability for the data in one project to "speak" to another, or to be migrated to a newer platform—it allowed our diverse users to be able to define project-specific metadata in ways that honored the goals of their particular projects. The challenge, as we learned when we began creating Digital Portobelo, was to determine a data structure that fit our research questions while not violating the spirit in which members of the Congo community originally agreed to be interviewed.
Despite this limitation, DH Press is nonetheless a powerful tool for mashing up different humanistic content, such as images, digital facsimiles of manuscripts, and multimedia files such as audio or video recordings. Indeed, DH Press has been audio-centered since its inception. The original pilot project for the tool was Mapping the Long Women's Movement (http://projects.dhpress.org/lwm/), a collaboration with the Southern Oral History Program (SOHP) (http://sohp.org/) at UNC. This project intended to present a novel way for people to interact with digitized oral histories—by syncing text transcripts with streaming audio files. The project demonstrated a process for indexing oral histories that enabled users to jump to various points of an interview based on key terms, but without slicing and dicing the audio files. By time-stamping the transcripts at regular intervals, the project team was able to preserve the broader context of each interview, thereby maintaining the wholeness of the audio file (see this example transcript). Equally important, this approach makes listening to digital/digitized oral histories more accessible, since users can both listen and read along without having to wait for a large file to download. Of course, this is only possible where there is a sufficient infrastructure in place, both a reliable Internet connection and a device capable of handling the data.
As we discovered early in the design phase of Digital Portobelo, this was not the case for our primary audience—the community of Portobelo. A rural community located in a rainforest, Portobelo did not have the infrastructure to support high-speed, reliable Internet access at the time. The majority of users accessed the Internet using smart phones that connected through local cell phone towers or computers connecting through dial-up modems. In times of heavy rain, the signal weakened and connections faltered. Streaming our content—and thereby increasing global access to the site—would prove challenging.
Thus, designing the digital project involves weighing the desirable against the possible. We had to address the technical limitations as much as the realities of time, money, and people power early in the project's lifecycle, and revisit them constantly. More importantly, our project team could not ignore the ethical implications of what we were about to undertake. What are the stakes and risks to the community, as well as the project team, of making ethnographic oral histories and interviews public and searchable? How might one best keep content closely tethered to context in order to prevent distortion of meaning? What are the implications of designing a digital project intended to transcend the digital divide, and how can that be done in meaningful ways? In short, just because we can design a digital oral history project, should we (Tufte 2001; Drucker 2011)? These are the types of ethical questions with which community-centered digital humanities projects like this one must reckon.
From the beginning, Digital Portobelo involved layered acts of translation. Those acts that bridge the gaps between US and Panamanian cultures and languages are easiest to trace. The types of translation needed to interpret and relate contrasting disciplinary cultures, methods, and guiding principles are harder to track. When I first met Pam, I was fluent in the languages afforded me by my humanities background, as a scholar trained in performance studies, but I only knew a few key words and phrases to reference digital tools and technologies. Pam, on the other hand, was fluent in both languages, which allowed her to pair each general project goal with the corresponding digital tool or tool designer necessary to accomplish each task. She then introduced me to the on- and off-campus digital humanities infrastructure and intellectual labor that might help support the project. Digital humanities and performance studies share a commitment to dwell in an ever-unfinished space of possibilities, questions, productive missteps, rehearsals, and revisions. This shared commitment served as an interpretive bridge between Pam's training and mine.
While the DIL had already created a digital oral history project, we had a lot to learn about designing and creating similar types of projects using DH Press. In part, the automation tools we had previously used to process pre-existing transcripts for audio syncing did not work with Spanish interviews, because the software could not "understand" Spanish. Unlike Mapping the Long Women's Movement, which built upon many years' concerted work by the SOHP, we were truly starting from square one with this project. All we had were interviews, some more than ten years old. Nothing had been transcribed—in Spanish or English—or digitized. Our ambition of creating a project that could support dual-language digital interviews, thus required us to create a workflow beginning with digitization and design, and culminating with the launch of a project. Guiding the development of the project was the question of how to transform a dozen oral histories into a data set that could be visualized, while preserving the integrity and spirit of the original content. Once that could be achieved, how would we facilitate movement from narrative, to data, and back to narrative again? Simply put, how could we create a digital project that could capture and convey the spirit, the vitality, and the dynamism of the Portobelo community members who generously have shared their stories with us?
Broadly speaking, the workflow we developed followed this general process:
|1||process oral histories||select and digitize||Renée||DIL student|
|2||project design (user experience design)||design all aspects of the website and data visualizations||Pam and Renée|
|3||process audio files||balance and edit WAV and MP3s||Renée||external project team|
|4||process transcripts||transcribe, translate, edit||Renée||external project team|
|time-stamp, split Spanish/English||Pam||DIL students|
|5||develop data visualization model||iteratively develop/test categories and possible values for describing interview chunks||Renée and Pam|
|6||build the dataset||create spreadsheet to be imported into DH Press for visualizing the interviews||Renée (while finishing the scholarly monograph)|
|7||create visualizations||ingest data into DH Press and configure the visualizations||Pam||DIL students assist with future upgrades|
|8||create website||create all other pages||Renée and Pam||DIL students|
|9||error check||check all data for errors||Pam||DIL student|
|10||soft launch||go live and collect informal user feedback||Renée and Pam|
|11||post initial launch: long-term preservation (incomplete)||upload all content to institutional repository||Renée||UNC Libraries|
|12||post initial launch: assessment, revision, and updates (ongoing)||access and respond to project’s growth potential aligned with goals; assess user experiences and address current limitations||Renée||internal and external project team|
|13||post initial launch: project maintenance (ongoing)||respond to changes in technology to ensure site operability; maintain relationships with collaborators to ensure optimal participation and usability||Renée||internal and external project team|
Despite its linear appearance, this workflow was an iterative and overlapping process; we performed multiple and concurrent tasks whenever possible to achieve higher efficiency.
Even after months of planning, we could not predict all the bumps in the road. Though we used Google Drive to centralize our work and collaborate in real time, we still had version control problems as transcripts went through multiple revisions. For example, Digital Portobelo team member Gustavo Esquina, a Portobelo-based Congo carnival practitioner and visual artist, often created the first draft of Spanish transcriptions. He then shared them with US-based team member Oronike Odeleye to translate into English, time-stamp, and format. When she noticed discrepancies between what one interviewee said and Esquina's written transcript, she reached out to him for clarification. Esquina explained that the interviewee, who was an elder, incorrectly named a cultural location. Concerned about representing Congo carnival performance "correctly," he changed the reference in the written text to better reflect what he had observed as "true." I explained the importance of ensuring that the written transcript represent the interviewee's narrative verbatim, but I encouraged Esquina to continue to note disconnects between his interpretations and those of other community members because those disconnects might point to important cultural shifts. Because Digital Portobelo is searchable using multiple legends including themes and Congo spaces, visitors to the site can witness multiple perspectives of the same phenomenon. One of the things that critical ethnography, digital humanities work, and performance studies scholarship share is attention to process. There is much to learn when tools break, conversations breakdown, and understandings misalign.
Given the size and geographic reach of the team, file sharing became tricky. We did not adopt project management software—Trello (https://trello.com/)—until well after the Phase One launch. Possibly our most glaring oversight was our inability to think long-term. We did not anticipate future steps in this workflow, including: regular and continued error checking after the launch; server upgrades; migration of the project to later versions of DH Press (which involved extending the original data to support newer visualizations); general maintenance of the site; and carving out time and money to continue to grow the site after the initial fellowship period concluded.
Through trial and error, as much as reflecting over lessons learned, we developed processes and practices which have since informed the DIL's future projects, and that we happily share so others can learn from our missteps (http://digitalportobelo.org/resources/diy/). Equally important, our stumbling helped us develop a workflow for manually creating, time-stamping, and processing oral history transcripts in just about any language (that can be encoded as UTF-8) to work in DH Press (https://docs.google.com/document/d/12ExdnNpn5Cqch2mWfvuUOinvUgC5rdM-3wnXvpuUy6Q/edit), which we share on the project site's Do It Yourself page.4
While determining the various and somewhat nitpicky elements necessary to get the transcripts working in DH Press, by far the most challenging aspect of the project's design was creating the data. In many ways, this was the heart of the intellectual endeavor, because it required us to continually ask, What are the categories of analysis? What is this project actually about? Answering these questions was an ongoing conversation and iterative exploration, one that overlapped and intersected with the final phase of the book project, which was published shortly after the launch of the digital site.
One of the most memorable and generative conversations we had during our process of imagining how to manage Digital Portobelo's content, was deciding how to use the category of "race" in a way that best aligned with the project's goals. At first glance, "race" might seem an appropriate container for the ethnoracial identity of an interviewee. But we feared that, given DH Press's flat data structure, which hinders the ability to visualize nuance and fluidity in the data, using such a broad category would be antithetical to the larger project in which race is a non-static marker of individual and cultural identity, as well as an object of analysis. Using "race" would "fix" an identity that might be more fluid in everyday life. African descent in Panama has a lexicon of identity terms that overlap at times, but do not mean the same thing. Because the complexity of Panamanian ethnoracial identity is, in many ways, at the heart of my broader research project, it was crucial to engage it in ways that best mirrored on-the-ground experiences. Therefore, it took talking through what "race" did not mean for the work, and what it was not intended to do, in order to determine what would be most generative. In the end, we discovered that the category of "race" would be best engaged by allowing it to point to spaces, identities, and/or cultural phenomena referenced by the speaker, rather than representing the ethnoracial identity of the speaker, which might shift and change depending on context. Doing so gives users the opportunity to discover patterns that might not be apparent otherwise. By engaging in this type of process, we developed a preliminary data dictionary (https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/12CsB4nTBfIErbzc5G9x_UvYLg_NoANbHNk9-9bBNuIA/edit#gid=0) to guide the data collection, though we continue to struggle to communicate and make more transparent the choices we made in structuring the data, which are not easily conveyed or embedded in the visualizations.
Though we present our workflow here as a clean and logical process, in reality it was messy and full of wrong turns. We learned the hard way that certain things—such as processing audio files—had to occur before other stages of the project—such as processing transcripts and data entry—could be completed. There were dead ends and paths never explored. And although we launched the project on time and on budget, many things remain unfinished. For one, the final step in the prelaunch process has not yet been tackled: content and data have yet to be deposited in the Carolina Digital Repository, UNC's institutional repository, for long-term preservation. What's more, now that my year-long fellowship with the DIL has concluded, and Pam has left UNC for another institution, it is difficult to find time and resources to maintain and grow the project, let alone check for basic errors. Keeping the project functional, much less adding new content, is a constant challenge that requires assessing previous decisions. Early on, for instance, we incorporated both Instagram and Flickr feeds on the site's multimedia page (http://digitalportobelo.org/multimedia/) to open up additional pathways for community engagement. Since then, the plugin supporting the Flickr feed is no longer functional and an alternative version is buggy, thereby closing that door for community participation. This is one of the moving targets of DH Projects, as third-party platforms are bought and sold, and plugins move in and out of relevance. We cannot always afford to custom build each and every platform, but relying on existing tools—content management systems, plugins, and apps—renders us vulnerable to both the unpredictabilities of market forces, as well as the predetermined structures that may or may not fit the particular needs of our projects.
Perhaps most unsettling, the community for whom this project was created, and who we envisioned would contribute future content, cannot yet fully access the project in Portobelo due to insufficient infrastructure. We still need to create alternate paths, including offline routes, for students and community members to be able to listen to and engage with these interviews, and to create and share their own digital stories. Technical limitations inherent to DH Press hinder Portobeleños from easily adding their own content directly to it, thereby distancing them from the project and forcing them into a more passive role in their own cultural preservation. For the foreseeable future, they will need to send their content, whether photographs, videos, or their own interviews, directly to a member of the project team (http://digitalportobelo.org/home/project-team/). That material will need to be processed, sometimes in a laborious way, before it can be shared via Digital Portobelo.
There are many technical, logistical, and philosophical challenges in undertaking large-scale, multi-phased digital projects. Perhaps most notably, such projects require a massive investment of time and resources, and budgeting for these resources can prove tricky when the finish line is not fully fixed. Highly collaborative projects of this type can prove challenging, particularly for humanists who were trained to work in monkish isolation. But collaboration is absolutely essential to a project's success; the more diverse, interdisciplinary, and cross-domain a team is, the greater the chance for success. Conversely, the more diverse the team is, the harder it will be to find common ground, and a common vocabulary, for completing the project.
Moreover, every project is hampered by the limitations of the particular technology upon which it relies. Choosing the best tool for the job is absolutely essential, but even then, it will not yield results exactly as desired. These projects demand a constant negotiation between what is desirable with what is possible. Compounding this problem, many data visualization tools, DH Press among them, often force users to squeeze their data into rigid representations that can obscure the constructedness of data, information, and knowledge (Drucker 2011). In a global context, these tools can prove to be highly problematic. Designed with cultural assumptions that are all too often invisible and uninterrogated, the current trend to develop projects using existing and open tools leads us to cram our content into a one-size-fits-all structure—a structure that, more often than not, silences that which does not fit. While the tools themselves are agnostic to our content and cultural nuances, the designers are not. Their quest for standard and interoperable metadata can exclude and leave many behind.5
In addition to the challenges of resources and time, faculty often face uncertainty regarding how their digital scholarship will be evaluated for the purposes of tenure and promotion. Braiding together the types of collaborations that evince meaningful digital projects in the humanities requires interweaving ideas and methods across fields of study and global contexts that have differential values and systems of assessment. Moreover, project management work is often considered a "soft" skill that is devalued and rendered invisible. Yet, this labor is not only crucial but also central to the success of any digital humanities project. Done well, it requires collaborative acts of analysis, translation, and cocreation (writing, building, making) to ensure that the finished project represents good scholarship, as well as scholarship intended to broaden public engagement. It is difficult to translate the value of this labor, which all too often falls on women, into rubrics designed to give intellectual credit for productive, scholarly contributions, especially in the context of tenure and promotion.
Fortunately, many colleges and universities are revising their tenure and promotion documents to acknowledge the scholarly labor and contribution of digital humanities work. However, without advocates and interpreters of digital humanities scholarship at each level of evaluation, reviewers and committee members may look for and lean on the types of work that remains more legible to them as "scholarship"—juried published essays, single-authored books, reviewed prominent live performances, and major curated art exhibitions. The result can render digital humanities projects as peripheral rather than central—as supplementary rather than essential. Therefore, along with new policy guidelines, institutions that are serious about this commitment must also develop standards for evaluating digital work and learn how to apply those standards. Many of the major professional societies, such as the Modern Languages Association and American Historical Association, have begun developing recommendations that can help promotion and tenure (P&T) committees get started.
Despite the challenges of undertaking a digital humanities project, the rewards far outnumber the risks. And by following some key best practices, success can be that much more attainable. For starters, borrowing from the Stanford University Libraries Program, LOCKSS, remember that "lots of copies keep stuff safe" ( http://www.lockss.org/). Never edit or process an original file; always work from copies so that you can revert to the original in the event of a catastrophic problem. Storing files in multiple places—local computers, hard drives, multiple locations in the cloud—ensures that your material will be protected. This requires that you develop a clear and logical naming convention and directory structure for files, and that every member of the team adheres to that system. To that end, developing plans for data management for the short-term, medium-term, and long-term will reinforce the longevity of the project's content. This is especially important for grant-funded projects, many of which are required to have long-term data preservation and sustainability plans. Put plans in place early in the process in order to address project maintenance once grant funds are gone. Project upkeep is difficult to anticipate, as it can require an uneven and unpredictable amount of time. But without addressing long-term needs, we doom our projects to quickly become outmoded artifacts.
Digital humanists aspire to build projects that are sustainable for a long period of time. It is critical to acknowledge that projects cannot persist forever, and that we cannot predict what future platforms and tools we will have at our disposal. The best we can do is to design projects with the hopes of future interoperability by using persistent data formats, such as CSV or XML, and designing sites in compliance with current user experience design principles. Preserving multiple formats, such as WAV and mp3, will also mitigate against future obsolescence.
One of the unique payoffs for creating a digital project is its potential to open up existing research in new ways, such that the researcher (as well as a broader public) witnesses different connections and reassesses meaning. I never intended to complete When the Devil Knocks (2015) and launch Digital Portobelo at the same time. Doing so was a test of my sanity and resolve, but made both projects infinitely better. It put the two projects in conversation with one another, requiring acts of translation between the intellectual labor required to render knowledge within the logics of a monograph and that required to do so within the logics of the digital site. Engaging with the rubrics of digital technologies forced me to be more explicit about my analytic categories and the underlying premises that guided both projects. The fellowship support, which made Digital Portobelo possible, also allowed me to digitize, code, translate, transcribe, and analyze a greater number of interviews than I originally thought possible. The ability to build and utilize Digital Portobelo as an analytic tool in the process of completing the book also allowed me see connections with a fresh eye and make discoveries that I might have otherwise missed. Likewise, the digital humanities project is indebted to the fourteen years of research and analysis that is evident in When the Devil Knocks. Moreover, some of the thick descriptions originally developed for the book project helped make the digital project more evocative. As a result, the published versions of each are more sophisticated and nuanced than they might have been if completed solely or separately.
Expanding my performance-centered work to critically incorporate digital tools and methods has given me a way to work collaboratively with the Portobelo community, in order to address its need to better preserve its culture while advancing scholarship about it. As a powerful complement to my critical/performance ethnographic work, digital technologies have the potential to: 1. expand opportunities for dynamic, sustainable, mutually beneficial collaborations across geographic locations; 2. narrow the ideological space between researchers and the communities within which we work, especially when we return "home" from "the field;" and 3. lower barriers to access by providing open source, user-friendly platforms that allow for more organic cocreation, critique, and consumption.
Likewise, approaching the digital humanities from my location as a performance-studies trained critical ethnographer opens the potential to: 1. critically engage with digital tools and the products as non-neutral cultural artifacts that circulate within plural cultural and political economies, often unwrapped from the careful contexts in which we bundle them; 2. attend to the ways in which rigid digital rubrics may flatten the complexity of qualitative research through the translations necessary to make the work legible within more quantitative computational systems; and 3. explore those existing limits as productive challenges that might simultaneously "grow" the technology as well as lead qualitative researchers to be more explicit about the systems of coding and categorization that guide the analytical work of our projects.
Digital technologies are a valuable part of my current critical ethnographic toolkit. Virtual opportunities in no way stand in for the persistent need for sustained face-to-face community engagement. However, prior to these technological advances, the gaps between in-person visits was largely filled with short, expensive telephone calls to celebrate or mourn a milestone. Now, the time between visits is filled with active collaborations and sustained, informal interpersonal contact. That said, the global digital divide is deep and wide, especially between rural and urban areas, not to mention the Global North and the Global South. It is not just a question of access, but of the quality, speed, cost, and reliability of that access. What new possibilities abound in engaging the products and processes of research through digital technologies? What new frictions arise at the multiple levels of translation when textured, fragmented surfaces can be rendered seemingly smoother? What backstage labor, infrastructure, resources, and proficiencies are needed to make the front stage visible, navigable, and engaging? What resources, technologies, and proficiencies serve as the price of admission? And, through what processes, using which mediums, can that price be significantly mitigated?
1 The authors engaged in a collaborative process of writing and editing this essay. Although this section includes contributions from both authors, we have chosen to render it through Alexander Craft's first person perspective to prevent readers from experiencing jarring changes in point of view.
2 Digital Portobelo is prototyped using Alexander Craft's original research and was initiated through an inaugural 2013 UNC Digital Innovation Lab/Institute for the Arts and Humanities Fellowship.
3 At the point of Digital Portobelo's initial launch in December 2013, the only visualization available was the geospatial map, which proved to be an ineffectual visualization, in part because Portobelo encompasses a very small geographic space. In order to pin specific passages of interviews to the map, we would have to place them in random locations to render a usable visualization. But doing so would also produce a highly misleading visualization. While Renée dreamed of having a gallery view as the primary entry point into the interviews, DH Press could not support that functionality at that time. As a workaround, we used the geospatial mapping feature in order to create an abstract, conceptual map, where interview segments were represented by different color dots. Once additional visualizations, particularly the "topic card" gallery, had been built into DH Press, we migrated Digital Portobelo to the newer version, which required us to modify the data significantly. It took three members of the team many days to complete the migration.
4 Pam Lach first shared this workflow as a two-part blog post on the Digital Innovation Lab's website, and as part of a presentation on Mapping the Long Women's Movement at the 2014 annual meeting of the Oral History Association in Oklahoma City, OK.
Part I: http://digitalinnovation.unc.edu/2013/10/10/oral-history-guide-part1/.
Part II: http://digitalinnovation.unc.edu/2013/10/10/oral-history-guide-part2/.
5 The Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities (IRDH) at the University of Kansas hosted a Digital Humanities Forum, Peripheries, Barriers, Hierarchies: Rethinking Access, Inclusivity, and Infrastructure in Global DH Practice, on September 24–26, 2015. Many of the papers and panels addressed this critique of DH tools. Videos of the proceedings are available in the IDRH YouTube archive.
Alexander Craft, Renée. 2015. When the Devil Knocks: The Congo Tradition and the Politics of Blackness in Twentieth-Century Panama. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press.
Conquergood, Dwight. 1991. "Rethinking Ethnography: Towards a Critical Cultural Politics," Communication Monographs 58: 179–194.
———. 2002. "Performance Studies, Interventions and Radical Research," The Drama Review 46 (2): 145–156.
Drucker, Johanna. 2011. "Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display," DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly 5 (1). http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/5/1/000091/000091.html
Madison, D. Soyini. 2005. Critical Ethnography: Method, Ethics, and Performance. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Tufte, Edward R. 2001. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 2nd ed. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.