DH Questions: Getting Hit by the Proverbial Bus

I’ll preface this question by saying that I mean no disrespect to my recently deceased friend and collaborator, Joel Jonientz, and I think he’d genuinely appreciate my interrogating the macabre, dehumanizing sensibilities that academia (or any other form of employment) imposes on us as conditions of intellectual production.

Joel and I questioning the permanence of digital production whilst working on rebuilding Bill Caraher's porch.

Joel and I questioning the permanence of digital production whilst working on rebuilding Bill Caraher’s very analogue porch.

In the case of Digital Humanities, the first time I heard a grant officer discuss this question it was jokingly referred to as the “What happens if you get hit by a bus?” problem. As it was explained to me, this conundrum has several facets from the perspective of a granting agency from which one and one’s collaborators hope to receive anywhere from a few to a few hundred thousand dollars.

First, let’s say you put together a great interdisciplinary team of talented scholars, each of whom brings something unique to the group. This is ideal, right? Well, sure, but of relevance here is what happens to the group (and the proposed grant outcomes) if one of the members gets “hit by a bus” unexpectedly? Could the group, which by definition needs this person and can’t function without him/her, still pull it off? Or would the grant fall apart, meaning that the funds awarded are in a sense “wasted”?

Or worse, let’s say the PI on a grant, the group leader, the group’s inspiration, the person who pulls everything together, is the one who gets “hit by a bus”? Can a group that has lost it’s visionary PI pull things together? Again, does this mean that the proposed outcomes will never happen? Will the funding agency’s money go to waste?

Or even later on, you have a wildly successful, field-altering website. We’ll say it’s hosted on a privately held server due to, ahem, incompatibility with University templates (or something). You get hit by a bus. With no one in place to update the site, maintain it, and pay to have it hosted, what happens next? You had a good run, but where is the permanence of knowledge you produced in the digital medium? Is that simply gone?

The personal, human factors of losing a close friend or colleague are lost in these questions, and if you were to say that you find traces of neoliberal accountability and assessment in my considering them, I think you’d be right. It’s territory where our agency is limited by the structures in which we work.

With Joel’s untimely passing, UND’s Working Group in Digital and New Media lost one of its leaders and will soon confronted by these questions. For me in particular, Joel was not only a main collaborator but someone whose animation skills, of which I possess none, brought incalculable value to my research and work with Maya communities (see the story he animated here). These crises, of course, pale in comparison to society’s losing a tremendous human being, friend, husband,  and father of three, but I do fear that in the cold light of day those to whom we are “accountable” won’t engage these meaningfully. It’s not about the person as human but the person as resource, and soon discussions turn to: OK, how did the group recover? Are you still important? Should you still get funding? How do particular individuals continue to move once-joint projects forward?

Brett Ommen started answering this question brilliantly with the recent online publication of Isocrates’ Against the Sophists as a comic book.  On my end, I’m nearing the completion of an animated story. As a collaborator, Joel was fond of saying he “loved a bad plan” and that he “wasn’t a man without skills” as he was, after all, “a master of the fine arts.” Behind that confidence, though, I always found that Joel wasn’t so much sure of his abilities or his skill level so much as he had an unflagging faith in his capacity to hone his abilities and increase his skills should the occasion require it (Bill Caraher talks about this over here). He was a master of BS (I once saw him hold forth on programming in Fortran, which he later confessed to me he knew NOTHING about) who had no worries about being called out for it. He was more than prepared to move ahead, and then some.

I’ll close by saying I think this DH question is BS as, in many ways, Joel answered these questions for me through our collaboration together. What happens if someone gets hit by a bus? You step up, you move ahead, you move forward. You acquire the skills you previously lacked and assume more responsibility. Over the past few weeks I’ve taught myself to animate in Photoshop, the results of which will be out soon. I hope Joel would go easy on me for the final product, but still: without Joel’s collaboration and, more importantly, his friendship, I would have never had the ability to reach beyond my own skill set and figure out what comes next. In that sense, and I’m sure Brett, Bill, and many others feel the same, Joel and I will always be collaborating.

2 comments to “DH Questions: Getting Hit by the Proverbial Bus”
  1. Pingback: Friday Varia and Quick Hits | The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

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