This past weekend I attended the Digital Library Federation Liberal Arts Colleges Pre-Conference (dlfLAC) and spent a lot of time reflecting on how I am approaching concepts of project-based learning. In particular, I quite enjoyed a talk given by Patrick Wallace, Digital Projects & Archives Librarian at Middlebury. Patrick built his talk around the concept of the “mad archivist,” a member of the campus community with a specific responsibility but who is asked to do many, many things and who has the potential to do more still. Specifically, this relates to individuals (particularly archivists or other library personnel) tasked with responsibilities grouped under an umbrella title that has the word “digital” thrown in with other words that may or may not lead to some coherent professional identity.
In short, this means that digital archivists, digital lab coordinators/leaders/facilitators, librarians working in digital humanities are effectively expected to do… well, everything. This played out rather well in Patrick’s talk as he shared with us a list of qualifications, experience and interests commonly found in job descriptions posted for various roles in the digital humanities: it was a long list. However, rather than be frustrated or intimidated, such a reality should encourage experimentation and the willingness to go abroad, beyond the home country of a narrow set of expectations.
It is important to point out that not everyone is so lucky as to be essentially left alone to go mad; indeed, this is a common problem for librarians and faculty who are eager to try new things. It is also worth nothing that a concern over potential lack of imagination can be rather crippling. I often wonder “but what can I do?” The answer is usually found in work already being done. My decisions to bring in podcast and video game assignments come directly from my own interests, particularly in the classroom. The main takeaway from Patrick’s presentation for me was the celebration of an ethos of “create, create, share and share widely.” In other words, try all kinds of things, give yourself credit that, yes, this is “work,” and that opportunities will present themselves.
The one counter-argument that should arise here is one of the more important ones: where do we find the time for such exploration? It came up at a few of the talks I attended. How do we get students involved? Perhaps more crucially, how do get faculty involved? You end up with a particular type of faculty member able and willing to join you on an exploration: she has just received tenure and she is willing to fundamentally alter a significant pillar of her pedagogy or perhaps even her research profile. This is, indeed, a particularly narrow demographic in academia in 2016.
It’s a high bar, and one that deserves a fuller discussion. I can already think of more such pessimistic counter-arguments, but for now I find myself intrigued and not a little bit inspired by Patrick’s sharing of this “mad archivist” idea. And I’m not even an archivist. In particular, I find such approaches refreshing when thinking about “interdisciplinary” work and what that is supposed to look like. Rather than wrinkle the skin between my eyes and squint at imaginary objects in the distance when the topic comes up I think, perhaps, I will instead set out to work on the idea and find out what it is when I get there.
This all coincides nicely with changes to my thinking since becoming an assistant professor at a small liberal arts college. Things really do work differently here, or at least, they can if you want them to. Working in a place that focuses so heavily on teaching gives me an advantage, I think, in creating more opportunities to go mad.