Reflections of A Digital Scholarship Digital Humanities Specialist Graduate Research Assistant

Amidst the trepidation of a new university, attending orientation sessions, pizza breaks, campus tours, I made my way through the winding paths between the campus buildings hunting for the Digital Scholarship Center Lab, my heart bursting. It was my first day at George Mason University and I meant to latch onto the Digital Humanities Specialist at the University Library. I applied via Handshake, the US Universities Job Application portal, had an interview with Wendy Mann, the Director of Digital Scholarship Center Lab, and received an offer letter in the space of a month. The on-boarding required a lot of paperwork; confusing and bewildering initially, where I trotted between the International Student Office, the Library HR Office, and the Employment Services Office, as well as the local Social Security Number Services Office. 

The only unfortunate grief in this position was that it would not cover a tuition waiver or convert my tuition fees to in-state, but only give me a stipend. However, I believe the experience and the general atmosphere of the space to be worth it all and barreled through the process anyway.

So what does a University’s Libraries Digital Scholarship Center Lab do? Explaining this is always a treat, since most mistake our offices for some sort of online financial aid office. The DiSc Lab at George Mason University works as a liaison between students, faculty, and digital research. Broadly classified as qualitative or quantitative research, depending on the type of course offered that semester, or the work-in-progress by various PhD scholars or faculty, this can mean guidance on software usage possibilities, including providing that software based on the university’s acquired licenses, as well as the general digital research inquiry. This requires unique communication skills, people skills to bridge the technical divide or technophobia, sometimes careful patience, and oftentimes enthusiasm for understanding a problem, even if the solution is not immediately apparent. Quantitative research would more likely be numeric, while Qualitative research would be records of first-hand observation, interviews, questionnaires, focus groups, participant-observation, recordings made in natural settings, documents, and artifacts. Generally, social scientists and humanities scholars came in for consultations on Qualitative data. DiSc is the one-stop-shop for resources on finding data, the right software to work with it, the rules, regulations, important server, copyright, and results evaluation, analysis, visualization, and eventually keeping the output ready for the neighboring SP@RC Lab to print out or make a poster of.

Personal Takeaway

If working as a Digital Scholarship Specialist taught me anything, it is that knowing how to search or “Google” for something, is a superpower. The very basic usage of the internet, wielding the power of instant access knowledge is an egregious art. It isn’t taught anywhere. The online communication and linguistics that come into play for the millennial and gen z. I attribute my own natural instinctual skills at finding the right datasets, the source, and research connections to a brief stint in digital marketing.

It took me a good 3 months to acclimatize to the workplace, the kindness of my supervisors, the rudeness of some of the much older students, and most of all, the general excitement over being an official Digital Scholarship Digital Humanities Graduate Research Assistant. So many people in DH I looked up to, whose work I looked forward to reading once I had the access that comes with an US university Email ID, were Digital Librarians or alt-acs (alternate academia) people in their own libraries. And here I was, already updating my CV with this title! Apparently, receiving such a position in the first semester of graduate study itself was almost unheard of, but I suppose my over-enthusiasm proved useful in these circumstances. The self-validation and immense humility of being a Librarian Research Assistant meant on most days I walked to work, my head was in the cold clouds, my hands warmed by a hot tea concoction from home. I genuinely adored the people I got to work with; Caroline, my dear work-study friend is always a delightful fount of knowledge, studies, and stories. Of course, with alluring monthly graphic novels and student art displays, Nerdy Halloween costumes nights, Cake-Bake-Offs in the Edible Book Festivals, Mason Jazz-in-the-Library fanfares with tiny teacups of cinnamon and fruit tea, arrays of cookies from Argo Tea, Library Books Giveaways, Special Collections Rare Books Research Center Tour,  simply spending the hours between work and classes amidst piles of books I swore I would read before I graduated, End-of-Semester Bagel Potlucks, and Library Faculty Dance Dinners.... How could I not love every single moment of it all? How was I to mourn the loss of these moments when the world had to turn virtual? And they did. 

In an effort to work around the challenges of virtual work, over-communication was key, so now I was getting to know more about the various hidden-from-plain-sight behind-the-scenes functions of a university library. I learnt more about grant writing, funding for different collections, thesis manuscript publications process, writing center services, the various research clusters, subject matter librarians expertise, the interconnections between all the departments within, and Library Carpentry, GIS Day, various sustainability, diversity, inclusion initiatives. I missed the Library Staff Break room dearly but staffing the virtual drop-in hours was an exercise of its own.

furniture, indoors, room, interior design with tiny artwork on walls

As a graduate researcher at the Digital Scholarship Center Lab since Fall 2019, I work with various departments to guide undergraduate students, doctoral students and faculty with their data analysis, visualization, and exhibit research.

  • Communicating with several Digital Humanities and Social Science researchers, which gave me a front seat to the research methodology, obstacles, and interest areas at GMU.
  • Presented workshops to library staff and students on topics like “Text Analysis of Classical Physics texts with R” Workshop, “Data Science Internship”, “Text Analysis of Black Lives Matter corpus on Proquest TDM with Python” Review etc. (Available as a PDF)
  • Created a new guide or tutorial (format and platform to be determined based on content) on accessing, retrieving, and using social media data for research. This guide’s content was used to replace this LibGuide page:  
  • Learning data services in a university library setting compared to a corporate setting, the process of finding data specific to the research and all the accompanying requirements like FERPA, IRB regulations, data privacy, and ethical studies.
  • Advising and consulting researchers to achieve their end goal and guide their discovery process. Assisted undergraduate Digital History Honors students’ group projects.
  • Redirecting students with DiSC lab resources to help users to the right person for assistance while attending the Greeting desk, and loaning out DiSc systems for the software installed on them based on the scholar’s requirements.
  • Gained a keen understanding of the general operating procedures and policies of the DiSC lab. 
  • Opened and closed the lab and helped out with day-to-day functions and weekly workshops. Attended weekly lab meetings and other training including HR workshops developed for library GRAs. 
  • Updating knowledge about qualitative and quantitative research software by accessing their use-cases in depth with the weekly workshops on many of them and various text analysis topics to develop workshop curriculum and materials and teach a workshop.
  • Working with Alyssa Fahringer, Digital Humanities Specialist on digital humanities resources and projects. Became familiar with Omeka Classic and Omeka-S in order to work on projects and attended monthly Omeka, Publications, and Digital Scholarship Working Group meetings.
  • Worked with Wendy Mann, the Director of the Digital Scholarship Lab Center on a quick guide for extracting data from GDELT and other data finding methodology. 
  • Demonstrate proficiency with multiple digital scholarship software packages which include: Tableau, Qualtrics, Open Science Framework (OSF), Gephi, Voyant, Omeka, Anaconda, SAS, SPSS, Stata, R, Python, Excel, ArcGIS, QGIS, NVivo, QDA Miner Suite. 
  • Advanced proficiency with a primary software package associated with his or her program of study and methodological expertise: Tableau, Gephi, Voyant, R, Python, Excel. 
  • Intermediate proficiency with a secondary software package in his or her subject area and methodological expertise: Omeka S and Omeka Classic, Jamovi, MALLET, Palladio.
  • Basic competence with SPSS, SAS, QDA Miner Suite, NVivo, and ArcGIS; and understand all supported software well enough to attain the ability to recommend the appropriate package and to interpret help documentation. 
  • Studied and consulted with several Digital Humanities and Social Science researchers, which gave me a front seat to the research methodology, obstacles, and interest areas. I met so many people working in the fascinating field in the Digital Scholarship center lab setting, that I probably couldn’t have, otherwise. 
    • I am extremely fascinated with the way data services take place in a university setting compared to a corporate setting. It was interesting to know the process of finding data specific to the research and all the accompanying requirements like FERPA, IRB regulations, data privacy, and ethical study.   
    • I was glad to be a part of many consultations where I got to help researchers achieve their end goal. It was gratifying and fulfilling to have a hand in their discovery process, as often times they needed someone to bounce ideas off and explain the possibilities to. 

I learned the basics of more qualitative and quantitative research software than I could perceive existed earlier, and while it might seem to be only a Google search away, I was also able to access their use-cases in depth with the weekly workshops on many of them. I have had discussions with the DiSc supervisors about consulting and teaching, where I wondered if the methodology of teaching programming languages in different ways can be further explored for GRAs and really felt heard. I enjoyed being a part of the weekly discussions and tours around the library, be it Omeka discussions, Special Collections Research, Digital Scholarship Working Groups, and even the Library HR meetings.  

We really networked in our Library HR Exercises

I would look forward to handling consultations myself, now that I have experience in Text Analysis, Data finding and usage, and social media data analysis. I would also consider write-ups on topics like Social Network Analysis, Quantitative data handling, George Mason University’s Twitter data analysis, and work on more Digital Humanities projects with Omeka analysis, Palladio, Cytoscape, etc. as a by-product.

Alyssa and Wendy are instrumental in helping to obtain internships, and advocate for myself in various interviews. I am incredibly grateful to the DiSc Lab team. Jaj from August 2019, thank you for your grit and determination.

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