Day 1 of OWOT: Check Your Ego at the Door

For the last year or so, my blog posts have tended to come on a monthly basis and have tended to be longer posts which also tend to be either CFPs or recent talks that I’ve given. I’ve got one of the latter coming (3 months after the fact and all). But this week is going to be different than all the rest. Why, you ask? Because I’m at One Week | One Tool.

OWOT is a project that is hosted by Tom Scheinfeldt and the crew at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (CHNM).


Through the sponsorship of the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities, twelve scholars are brought together for a week’s time in which they will conceive, build, and launch a tool for digital humanities research. I applied in a fit of hopefulness for OWOT back in March, and I was lucky enough to be accepted to participate in this iteration of OWOT. I’m joined by undergraduate and graduate students; librarians; software developers; faculty; designers; museum professionals; and a high school librarian. I’m thrilled to also say that the group is composed equally of men and women, something that is worth highlighting in connection with the recent ADHO working group on inclusivity.

Even though we’re only 24 hours into this experience, I can tell that it’s going to be an intense week of work. And there’s no way that I’m going to be able to blog it all. Indeed, it’s impossible to capture it in real time via Twitter, although we’re doing our best with the #owot hashtag or on our Twitter list. (Check out the archive of tweets, if you’re curious.) So I’m just going to be posting a little bit of summary and a bit of personal reflection on a daily basis. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself 24 hours into it.

So here’s what we’ve done so far. Last night we met as a team for the first time. We introduced ourselves, heard some basics from Tom about how the week would work, and ate. This morning, we got to work exactly at 9am in CHNM. We got an overviews from Sharon Leon on conceiving, funding, and managing software projects; Sheila Brennan talked to us about outreach and building community around open-source software; and Patrick Murray-John presented on coding environments and development best practices. We got a lot of inside information about how projects have lived and died at CHNM.

OWOT team, first day

One of the most interesting for me was the realization that CHNM’s dependence on grant funding (something that we tried to avoid in our design of DiSC at Emory) can be a strength as well as a liability, as that arrangement allows them to get outside what would otherwise be institutional boundaries. If it’s in the grant, after all, it’s a contractual obligation, and that can be a useful mallet to wield against parts of your organization that aren’t invested in your vision.

We took a break for lunch, which involved more conversation with team members, and then we spent four and half hours in the afternoon brainstorming ideas for the tool that we would build. We managed to put a lot of ideas on the board in that time.

White board with ideas for One Week | One Tool

Along the way, we took a lot of time to ask questions about the ideas that were being considered, as well as exploring similar products and solutions that already exist. We not only made use of a whiteboard, but Jack Dougherty and Amanda Visconti valiantly made a Google Doc that captured a lot of what we were considering and started fleshing out the ideas as we talked about them. We watched an increasing number of ideas come in via Twitter throughout the afternoon. Some of them echoed things we were already considering; others were completely new. But we made sure that we talked about each one of them as a group.

Toward 4pm, we needed to start synthesizing. Meghan Frazer jumped to the front of the room and with the aid of a couple of whiteboards, helped us narrow down our ideas into the concrete proposals. For each one, we decided to identify the basic idea, the intended audience, and the need that the tool would fulfill. We also found that a number of our ideas overlapped with each other in productive ways. And we also discovered that some of the things we were interested in just weren’t solid enough for further consideration. Our spirits flagging a bit, we repaired to our watering hole: The Well, at the Mason Inn.

Group of OWOT team at The Well

Once there, we finished the work for the afternoon. (Well, at this point, it was past 6pm.) We continued to workshop our ideas, boiling them down into something that we could put out as teasers to to the community. Even though we need to make a decision on what we’re building by noon tomorrow (a scant 12 hours away from when I’m writing this), we wanted to ask the larger digital humanities community, as well as the other groups to which we belong, for comments on what we should build. You can now do that here: Please do weigh in!

Of course, it’s expected that a group that likes to be as open as digital humanities people generally are would like to get input from others. What might be less expected is how hard it was to come up with a platform for soliciting this input. Twitter wasn’t going to provide enough context for our ideas or comments. All Our Ideas was going to allow people to add new ideas into the mix, and that wasn’t something that we wanted at this stage in the week. Google Forms wasn’t set up for what we wanted. And Idea Scale, which we ended up using, requires users to log in (with Oauth, if nothing else) before voting. There was some serious discussion, I’ll have you know, about whether logging in was going to be too much of an impediment for uptake of comments. This is a group that is taking its job very seriously but that is also realizing that we need to make some quick—and at times imperfect decisions—to accomplish what we must. We finally wrapped around 7:30 or 8pm tonight. A long day, and just day one of what will be a very long week.

So all of this travelogue, and I’ve not really explained what the subtitle of this post means. I found it interesting last night that during our introductions, Tom specifically asked people to share with the team what our superpowers are. Knowing what our strengths are and what we are collectively capable of is important for us to imagine where we could go this week. It was kind of refreshing to hear a group of people not be (faux) humble for once. Among us, we’ve got a really amazing range of skills, (quoth the guy whose superpower is merely Twitter and not needing a lot of sleep).

But this morning, Tom reminded us that it was time to check our egos at the door. We’re going to have to work together, be okay with not getting our way all the time, and—by the end of the week—put up with each other in order to be successful. I’m writing this blog post most of all to remind myself of these facts, as my tendency is to like to talk and to privilege my own ideas. I’m glad to be working with a group of people who are already being supportive and willing to take many different perspectives into consideration. This week promises to be a good opportunity to remember that my ego isn’t as necessary as I tend to think it is.

The tool that we build will be important. But even more will be what we learn about the process of collaboration, development, and more by launching a product in a week’s time. In other words, process > product. Words to live by…at least for a week.

Don’t forget to vote for what you’d like to see us build! And look for my next post; who knows, it might have spoilers.