week 7: people managing machines managing projects

Maybe your risk assessment should have included “plucky kid uses landline to play solitare, starts global themonuclear war.” (gif from “War Games,” via giphy)

Speaking as an amateur check-list maker and professional abandoner of productivity tools, this week’s project & data management module was exciting to dig into (with a small measure of guilt for said abandoned task lists). I also recently participated in a summer professional development workshop on project management for librarians, which was not as useful as expected, so I was hoping for better grounding of PM in a more relevant disciplinary context. This week’s readings certainly provided that, along with a heavy dose of information theory and a look at what we don’t talk about when we talk about DH. 

Edin Tabak describes an approach to agile project management that does more than simply change the examples or language to fit a humanities or DH interest. Instead, Tabak looks at the elements that set DH projects apart from other commercial or user-driven models—namely, their modular and iterative nature, but also the uncertainties that can be introduced into a process when research questions change, institutional priorities shift, or new discoveries from earlier stages might alter the original scope. While I’m not as clear on the idea of Information Cosmopolitics cycle as articulated by Tabak,1 I understand this to be a management method based on constant review (and as necessary, renegotiation) of project expectations in each iteration of the cycle. Tabak’s method would seem to allow for hard deadlines and budgets as well as flexible situations, but I might have understood this process better if there had been some more explicit discussion of this in practice. For example, Tabak introduces the idea of “commitments” in place of traditional resource allocation during a project cycle, but doesn’t fully explain what that means in the context of a DH project. We can understand this to be a flexible system, but its abstract or conceptual focus makes application a little less obvious. 

Gabriele Griffin and Matt Hayler, meanwhile, look at one specific element of DH projects—collaboration—with the aim to understand why this lacks any significant investigation or theorization. The reasons for this silence are not so surprising: scholars protecting their lone expert status, concerns of technical obsolescence, and neoliberal imperatives that prioritize individual contributions within a collective effort.2 But to frame their research, the authors first construct a typology that considers the potential contributors to DH projects: humans to other humans; humans to machines; and machines to other machines—and this framework introduced some interesting critical arguments. I have more work to do to understand “new materialisms” as discussed here, but the introduction of machine/material agency (and its potential to shape human actors) seems crucial, especially as we head into next week’s discussion of bias and ethics in the digital world.3

(And if nothing else, it was a good reason to dig up War Games gifs.) 

Moving on to the practical and technical activities this week! Over on Jayme’s blog, she discussed being a “professional nudge,” and the necessity of buy-in when working with software or project management tools. As someone happy to take a proactive role in project activities, but not-so-great about delegating or keeping others on track (the anti-nudge), I’ve learned how useful some of these tools can be for this purpose. Basecamp and Trello have been a regular part of my work life for a while now, but I definitely learned these tools before learning about (or doing) project management in any kind of systematic way.

Trello has been excellent for project visualization AND management , and I’ve used it for everything from planning a Space Race-themed party to editing a book collection to running a gallery. The ease of making and sharing checklists across cards is one of my favorite features, since we have so many recurring tasks across exhibitions. The visual organization also makes it easy to orient new members to project Boards and tools (whereas I find a higher learning curve to Basecamp, if only because things can get so buried in the project workspaces). However, Basecamp’s scheduler seems to offer a better handle on timelines, and its ability to assign specific individual tasks may give it a leg-up for delegation and accountability. Basecamp also has better integrated support for files, though I don’t always love its limited options for display or organization (and have since developed folder naming conventions that help keep priority content visible).

More important than the tools, though, I’ve come to realize how important it is to set expectations and roles at the outset, especially when working with senior colleagues or those who might otherwise hold a position of authority. My professional work has progressively included more supervision and project coordination, so this has been a bit of a hurdle—and more than once has meant frantically finishing project activities right before a deadline. These day-to-day projects with colleagues across the university may not have direct oversight, either (is it a library project? Is it a department project?), and the autonomous and ad hoc nature of this work can make it easy to start new, shiny things. Taking the time to draft a project plan, even in simple form, helps to introduce some necessary friction to the process!

  1. Edin Tabak, “A Hybrid Model for Managing DH Projects,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 11, no 1 (2017).
  2. Gabriele Griffin and Matt Steven Hayler, “Collaboration in Digital Humanities Research – Persisting Silences,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 12, no 1 (2018).
  3. Griffin and Hayler 6

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5 Comments

  1. Hi Stephanie,
    Thanks so much for your coverage of the project management module. You gave a good overview and some critical points as well. I liked the way that you integrated your own use of project management in your professional life. I can relate to your discussion because I have worked many years in higher education as a program assistant. As a result of your discussion, I am looking forward to studying the project management module. I am also hoping to use it to manage my personal life better.

  2. Hey Stephanie! It was so great to work on the Project Management module with you. It was helpful to discuss how we both have done project management throughout our careers in the humanities, but have never been official dubbed “Project Manager.” Thank you so much for so clearly articulating your experiences on Trello and Basecamp, both in our discussions and in this great post. It is really great to get your “boots on the ground” opinions on what has worked, and what hasn’t. I feel like these tools can also be a great and viable option for graduate students trying to stay on track with classes, but also in one’s course of study, where deadlines loom and some of the minutia related to the timeline is not always clear or rather, not always easy to keep track of. Also, thanks for the shout out! Ha!

    • stephanie

      Thank you, Jayme! I could definitely learn from your project management success, too, especially coordinated across a museum like the MFA!

  3. Cassandra

    Yes! It is very helpful to develop a project management place. Several years ago I was the project chair for a group made up of some fairly strong personalities. It was key to adequately delegate duties and to keep the meetings on task. Also, I wish that I had used Basecamp and that Slack had been around for our group to use. Stephanie – go ahead and delegate! It makes life so much easier. This was written by a person who is an INTP/J, who is not a strong “J.”

    • stephanie

      Hah, thank you for that! Only half joking that I should print this out and stick “Stephanie — go ahead and delegate” to my monitor… 🙂

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