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Visiting UVA and the Scholars’ Lab

Beautiful Alderman Library, where Scholars’ Lab is located

I’ve spent the last week on the beautiful grounds of University of Virginia, where I’ve visited Scholars’ Lab and given two talks (one for the brand new Engineering and Society department and one for the Scholars’ Lab). This is all part of what I call my great digital environmental humanities tour, where I plan to visit quite a few digital humanities centers of the next year and a half. The UVA visit is the first one, and in the spring I plan to go to Stanford and UCLA. It’s all generously funded by the internationalization funding that came with my wonderful tenure-track job in Umeå.

The gate to one of the gardens around The Lawn

One of the reasons why I’m enjoying this stay so much is that I have a long-standing connection to UVA. I lived here for a year, in 2005-2006, with my wife, who got her PhD from here. We even got married in one of Thomas Jefferson’s gardens. During this year, I was a visiting researcher in what was then the STS department, working on my dissertation and generally having a great time. I haven’t been back since Dolly defended her PhD in 2008, so a visit was much overdue.

I met with the environmental history grad students in the Sally Brown Reading Room, where we had a very good discussion of the state of Nordic environmental history

The Scholars’ Lab

The Scholars’ Lab is a wonderful place, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to connect with the people here. It is one of the most outspoken proponents of digital research and scholarship in the US, under the leadership of Bethany Nowviskie. The lab faculty and staff has developed software applications like Neatline (which I’ll talk about shortly). The lab provides space for students and faculty to meet and work, with plenty of computer equipment. It also hosts a speaker series (where I gave a talk) and arranges workshops on a number of topics. In other words, the lab’s mission is very similar to HUMlab’s.

My desk was located right next to the Scholars’ Lab’s Makerbot – “The Replicator”

I was also curious to hear more about the Praxis Program, which “realigns graduate methodological training with the demands of the humanities in the digital age.” The library has had a graduate fellowship in the digital humanities for six years, and the Praxis Program is an attempt to take this training even further. The Praxis Program is in many ways a digital apprenticeship, where six graduate students gets to work with the Scholars’ Lab team to design and build a digital research tool. The tool is not the goal, however – instead, the Praxis Program aims to develop transferable skills such as coding, planning, project management, teamwork, and so on, with the goal of creating “scholars comfortable designing effective user experiences, writing and working with open source code, engaging broad audiences, managing teams and budgets, and theorizing their work within the rich tradition of humanities computing.” I believe this is something that we should really try to implement in our own graduate students in Sweden, both on Masters and Doctoral levels.

Neatline

My main reason to come to the Scholars’ Lab, however, was to do some work on setting up a pilot project website using Neatline, a software application developed by the lab to let scholars “tell stories with maps and timelines.” I have done much thinking about the mediation of places and of ideas of nature (partly through my affiliation with the Media Places project), and I think digital tools like Neatline can be quite helpful in visualizing and analyzing the way narratives and knowledge about both abstract and concrete places and spaces are mediated and distributed in different configurations over time. I only had time to do some initial work on the actual website, but I got the chance to discuss my ideas and the possibilities and limitations in Neatline with the developers.

I have forever joined the group of Scholars’ Lab fellows and friends on the lab’s Wii.

I have three more days in the US, most of which I’ll spend in the Washington, DC area. On Sunday there are museums to visit – the National Museum of American History was closed for renovations last time I was here, in 2008, and it has some quite nice history of technology exhibits from what I hear. The American Art Museum has an exhibit on “The Art of Video Games” that looks absolutely fabulous. The National Book Festival is also on this weekend, so I will certainly take a walk along the Mall to see what’s happening.

On Monday I will go out to George Mason University to visit the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media – I visited there for two weeks in 2008, so they are old friends. On Tuesday, I will visit the Library of Congress, where another friend will show me the ropes. I hope to find some useful material for one or two of my ongoing research projects.

Virginia skies

Sometime during this stay I might stop at the National Geographic Museum to look at George Steinmetz’ desert photos. I am certainly going to Sushi Taro for some of the best sushi in the world, and very possibly to Smoke and Barrel for some fine and rare beers. Plenty to do, in other words.


So, what do you think ?