Should we re-think the DH Awards?

Voting for the fourth annual DH Awards opened today. For those unaware, these awards allow the public to nominate and vote on Digital Humanities projects shortlisted in a number of categories: “Best Use of DH for Fun”, “Best DH tool or Suite of Tools”, “Best DH Blog Post or Series of Posts”, “Best DH Data Visualization”, “Best Use DH Public Engagement”, and “Best Exploration of DH Failure” (for which there were not enough nominations). There is no financial prize, and nominations are filtered by an international committee composed of respected DH scholars.1

The initiative is intended as a means of drawing attention towards the work of our colleagues, and in this respect it is a worthwhile contribution to our community. With some slight re-branding intended to make it clearer to those from beyond our cohort that they are community accolades assigned by popular vote, the DH Awards could present an even greater opportunity for our field. Yes, they generate awarenessa vital activitybut we need to consider the unintended repercussions.2 Twice in recent years has a senior scholar, one of which was speaking in their capacity as a member of a search committee, queried me on the prestige of these awardsI can only assume that there have been situations wherein the weight of these prizes been overrated. As our field continues to mature, we should take precautions to ensure that each and every distinction that someone might place on their résumé is taken for what it is. The reality of our discipline is that many hiring committees aren’t ideally placed to assess the expertise of candidates looking for DH-related positions, and it is not inconceivable to imagine a scenario in which such an honour might be misinterpreted.

Everything shortlisted listed is a stellar piece of work with which any scholar would be delighted to be associated. Furthermore, as a community, we should continue to recognise our peers, particularly as so many DH scholars see their efforts undervalued by their administrations and institutions. But we need to make this community-ethos more transparent, so that hiring and promotion boards, which often include the uninitiated, can see at first glance the spirit in which the awards are intended. A simple renaming might suffice, branding the event as the DH Community Awards; or perhaps the selection committee could be expanded, and charged with choosing what would then be peer-reviewed recipients, with the public still free to submit nominations (I accept that selection by committee has its failings, but surely it is a better approach than popular vote?). To heighten transparency, the sources of the nominations could also be revealed, a strategy that has been adopted by journals like Digital Studies / Le champ numérique with respect to their reviewers.

Where I see particular value in the DH Awards is in their potential to encourage emerging and younger scholars—back at the beginning of my PhD, I was excited to be shortlisted for a DH Award. But it’s difficult for the awards to be just that when they include major grant-funded projects alongside smaller undertakings being driven by what one assumes are modest resources. If the DH Awards are about awareness, perhaps these larger projects, many of which have budgets for public engagement, should be omitted? Recognition of our more established colleagues happens regardless, through our teaching and citations. Or perhaps the categorisation could be adopted to reflect the funding status of different projects? There are lots of ways we could re-consider this scheme so as to further benefit the creators of DH projects, both big and small, high- and low-tech.

Established in 2012, I hope to see the DH Awards endure for many years to come, but I do believe that they merit some examination and possible reinvention if their existing value is to be reinforced.

1. Kudos to James Cummings, his fellow instigators and contributors, who give their time and expertise freely to this so as to generate awareness for our projects—it is they who should receive a prize for public engagement.
2. With thanks to Scott Weingart for his general advice and wisdom.

One response to “Should we re-think the DH Awards?

  1. Hi James,

    Thank you for your considerate and kind comments, and your desire to make DH Awards even better. Apologies that it has taken me awhile to respond. Apologies also for the length of the below, it is longer than your original post!

    As you note the DH Awards are openly nominated and openly voted. They are conceived entirely as a grass roots method of creating DH awareness in communities both inside and crucially outside of DH.

    For some background to their creation, if you’ll indulge me, I remember when the idea originally occurred to me. During the 2004 ALLC/ACH in Gothenburg I was happy to see Susan Hockey get the Roberto Busa Prize. As she spoke I wondered who had made the decision to give it to her, and who else had been nominated. It isn’t that I didn’t think Susan Hockey deserved it, she most certainly did in my opinion, it was just my dissatisfaction with award systems determined by the shadowy elite of DH where all the decisions were made behind closed doors. Ok, I’m very confident that the ADHO Standing Committee on Awards works hard to make good decisions, and I’ve nothing against them as an awarding body. What I wanted to see though was a system where anyone could nominate, anyone could vote, and thus ensure all the nominations were public. In ADHO I believe the protocol says “SCA will take steps to ensure that nominations are solicited in an appropriate manner”… I think any nominations are good, I’m less concerned about how and why they’ve been solicited since DH Awards is not attached to any institution, organisation, or body with political or financial aspects. Although I know such committees strive to fight their biases and have diverse membership, I wanted to see something which wasn’t really controlled any committee other than the most minimal checks (Is it DH? Did it have some update at all this year? Is it in the right category? Is there a paywall?) So the germination was in 2004, it only took me until 2012 to wonder “Why hasn’t someone else done this yet?”.

    The point of removing barriers to nomination (self-nomination is encouraged… your mother can nominate you if she wishes) and voting (anyone can vote, they don’t need to be a member of something, or in a particular community) is precisely to get a list of DH resources under the noses of people who are not the usual committee members or DH community members. It is precisely because I want your mother and her friends to vote for your resource. I want them to go there and vote for you but maybe also have a look at a couple others in other categories and have even a vague exposure of “There was that site I saw that was doing cool things with East Asian manuscripts”. (Or whatever.)

    You have some good points, especially that people might ascribe them more significance than they deserve. I do try to highlight that they are community-based awards, of no financial value or prestige, and crucially openly nominated and openly voted. Each year I receive a number of emails giving feedback on people’s feelings both for and against, the idea of such awards. Some of them are horribly abusive even on a personal level, some of them enthuse wonderfully about the awards and how great it is, and some try to sell me software to run an award system properly. I’ve also been told that they were created by the University of Oxford to somehow control the DH agenda. (Which is strange because although they are my current employers, Oxford has nothing to do with them, I do the work for them in my own time. There is no funding for any of DH Awards from anywhere.) Anecdotally multiple people have told me that they have returned to the voting lists because they vaguely remember seeing a resource there and now want to re-discover it. They wouldn’t have gone to the list in the first place if it was just a wiki listing DH resources.

    You are right that it is unfair, especially with big name projects (though I’ve seen some do poorly), with lots of funding and outreach activities. In 2012 the winner and runner up in one category far outstripped all of the others in all of the other categories with the number of votes that they got. I believe this may be because they employed the alumni network of their institutions and so many people voted (but, to be fair, they also voted in other categories… though who knows if they were clicking randomly). Rather than thinking that a failure, I think it is a success. Yes, it means you’re less likely to win unless you are some big project or have access to a big community. However, I really don’t think that winning the awards is the point (after all, what do you really win…. have you seen the crappy icons I designed?!?), it really is the taking part. Having your resource listed amongst all the others so that people see it (and hopefully some small minority go an look at it). Site stats during the DH Awards lead me to believe that some people _are_ going and looking at resources. Those where I’ve had access to the data one year saw a spike larger than the number of votes cast for that resource.

    Yes, the categories could be changed. We’ve changed them a number of times and settled on these for awhile. There are complaints about them every year, and people often stick things in categories that aren’t appropriate (*really* is that a *tool*?!?). We err on the side of inclusion and tolerance unless there is a much better category for the resource. In 2012 people were outraged because although we stated “Awards are not specific to geography, language, conference, organization or field of humanities that they
    benefit.” we were shouted at by some source for being too white/anglo/western and strongly encouraged by multiple people to have an Oscars-like “DH in a foreign language”. Of course doing that in 2013 made it appear like we were somehow ghettoising any foreign resources so that was removed the next year. (And I think it is better without it, but with strong encouragement that they aren’t meant to be Anglo resources.) Whether a category for “Non-funded DH Resources for something or other” would help those who haven’t received funding or not, I don’t know. I worry it might be like the issue of language.

    You want to see them continue for many years, and that is good to know, because each year I ask myself whether I can be bothered to do all the various bits of work, cutting and pasting, even on a minimal website. Whether this year will be the last year, who knows. Each year I ask myself if I can be bothered to do so again. That is why I’ve adverse to changing it too much… any changes mean it will take more work. I’m not sure any of this has really answered your points, but hopefully at least given some background.

    -JamesC

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