My Interview with Bethany Nowviskie!

I got the opportunity to interview Bethany Nowviskie who is the Director of the Scholar’s Lab and Department of Digital Research & Scholarship at University of Virginia Library. After exploring her website (, I knew that Bethany would be a great digital humanist to interview. After an initial few emails being exchanged, I found the she was a very busy woman but was willing to take a few minutes to reply. Therefore, I stuck to simply questions throughout the interview. Below are my questions followed by her responses in italics:

1. What academic background do you have that has prepared you for your position as a Digital Humanist? Any specific classes or technological trainings?

My PhD is in English, but I really focused on digital humanities subjects for my dissertation (before it was called DH — when “humanities computing” was the common term). I took some relevant classes from Jerome McGann and John Unsworth along the way, but most of my training was extra-curricular, on-the-job, or self-taught.

2. What does your average day consist of? Are there any big projects that you have previously worked on or something you are working on now?

If you look at “recent funded research activities” on my CV, you can get a sense of my digital projects. “Speaking in Code” has just wound up, but Neatline is an ongoing project even though the grants have ended. As far as an “average day,” you could look for some of my past entries for the Day of DH project (which is a community ethnography project to document a day in the lives of digital humanities practitioners) — but, for the past couple of years, my time has been increasingly taken up with three kinds of service and organizational work: 1) work for professional associations (I have just finished terms as President of ACH, the major professional association for digital humanists, and as chair of the Committee on Information Technology at the Modern Language Association, and I am currently a steering member of ADHO, the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations and the chair of its Conference Coordinating Committee); 2) work on faculty governance issues at UVa (just finishing up a term as chair of our General Faculty Council and an executive committee member of UVa’s Faculty Senate); and 3) work as our Provost’s Special Advisor for Digital Humanities, helping to re-organize DH services and set directions at an institutional level. This is all stuff outside my regular job duties as a director in the Library and member of our library’s senior leadership team and as director of the Scholars’ Lab, which have been ongoing. So you can see my time is increasingly taken up with administrative, service, and organizational work, which keeps me away from working directly on DH projects. I miss that kind of work

3. What are some skills that you need as a Digital Humanist?

It’s crucial to have a serious grounding in one or more academic humanities disciplines, so you know some humanities content and current research questions at a very deep level. Beyond that, you should hone your skills as a collaborator, because very few DH projects can be accomplished alone. I think it’s important to have an understanding of and appreciation for research questions and new directions in information science, computer science, design, and software development and a grasp of the culture and mission of galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (the “GLAM” sector — particularly the value they place on open access to cultural heritage resources).

4. Do you have any advice for someone interested in the Digital Humanities?

Don’t just be interested in “the digital humanities.” Be able to clarify for yourself WHAT about DH interests you — what social or intellectual problems you want to address with new technology (including things that may not have been traditionally part of “the humanities,” but where humanities ideas are key! an example might be climate change or social justice); what kinds of humanities subjects, texts, artifacts, or other media, and issues motivate you to learn more and enrich your own life; what kinds of things (content or methods) you are most excited to share with others or teach them; and why you care.  If you know all that, you’ll find the right corner of the DH world to grow in and thrive, and that will lead you to the right tools and techniques.  Don’t go for the gadgets first: go for the meaning.

5. What is your definition of the digital humanities?

I don’t think it’s fruitful to define DH. So many people in the academy are feeling embattled and short-changed and anxious right now — and so many academics have a hard time seeing beyond their disciplines, their types of institutions, their countries, etc. — that past attempts to offer definitions have been divisive. They are inevitably partial (from one particular perspective, even when innocently or kindly meant) and are so often received as attempts to stake claim or close doors to others, that I don’t think it’s a productive exercise.  If I had to say something, it would be that digital humanities *is* whatever people inspired by the various DH communities and concepts and goals *do.*

Bethany had a lot of very helpful information regarding digital humanities. You do not necessarily have to consider yourself a digital humanist in order to participate in the digital humanities. I found out much more than I could have imagined from this short interview with Bethany.

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