Digital Dialogs: On Being an AD in the DWRL

"I love the ADs" on neon geometric background


Cate Blouke, Will Burdette, Eric Detweiler, Kendall Gerdes, Megan Gianfagna, and Steven LeMieux

Image Credit: 

Kendall Gerdes

In the Fall of 2014, DWRL Assistant Directors (ADs) and AD alums conducted this roundtable discussion on their experiences of administrating in the Digital Writing & Research Lab. We posed and answered questions about why we became ADs, how being an AD changed our own teaching and research, what it’s like to supervise our peers, how we set the DWRL’s research agenda, how we host a welcoming environment for the lab’s members, and we pass on what we’ve learned through institutional memory. We're sharing our discussion here with the hope that current and future lab members can learn from our experience!

1)    Kendall: Why did you want to become an AD?

Kendall: I wanted to be more involved in the DWRL. After a half-year as a project member (on Battle Lines, a very engrossing project), and a year as a project leader on what turned into an ebooks group, I still wanted to scale up my involvement (rather than just going back to being a project member). In my AD application, I wrote about those experiences, and I also wrote about my teaching experience using digital tools like PBWorks, Twitter, and Google Docs. I wrote that teaching in a DWRL classroom made “more curious and more confident” with teaching digital technologies. I think my RHE 310 class next spring will really reflect that continued investment in experimenting with digital writing.

Will: I applied to be an AD my first year in the program, before I was even a lab member. I was taking classes in the lab with Spinuzzi and Slatin and Syverson, but I didn’t understand how the administration of the lab worked. So when the call went out for assistant director applications, I applied. (Years later, Stephanie and I laughed about this situation. “Who does this guy think he is?” she must have been thinking.) Anyway, I started to understand how things worked and that coincided with learning about legitimate peripheral participation from Lave and Wenger’s Situated Learning in Peg’s [Syverson’s] class. Basically, there is a process through which people move (or don’t) from the periphery to the center (problematic as that is) in a community of practice. So I started to understand that you became a PL [project leader] first, then you had a shot at an AD-ship. I wanted to become an AD because I wanted to move from the periphery to the heart of the lab and really see how places like this work.

Megan: After my time as a project member in Engaged Networks and a project leader for Currents and TheJUMP,  I felt really invested in increasing the visibility of the lab’s resources, accomplishments, and culture to an outside audience. I knew we had a lot to offer and wanted to help connect even more people outside UT to the lab’s projects and publications. At the same time, I wanted to explore what kinds of informal partnerships we could forge with other institutions and professional organizations that could inspire us and push us to try new things. So my interest in being an AD was really driven by a love for the work the lab was doing and by a compulsion for branding and promotion work that grew out of my past life as a “professional.” The other driving force was that I had seen the past/current ADs operate as such high-caliber mentors, and I aspired to be that kind of mentor myself. The ADs were awesome, and I wanted to be awesome too.

Cate: When I first applied to teach in the DWRL in the spring of 2010, I was far from what one might consider tech-savvy, and I wasn’t really sure what I had signed up to do. Yet underneath the feelings of anxiety and apprehension, there was a growing tide of excitement that swept me along into taking on Project Group leadership and then learning Drupal to re-build the Lesson Plan site. The DWRL has taught me that learning is a process of working out ideas with other people: that we don't come to knowledge or innovation through solitary bursts of genius. Talking through my ideas with fellow Lab members and ADs made my teaching experiences so much richer, and I really wanted to return the favor. And, to be honest, I knew that administrative experience would be a boon on the job market. Since I switched from literature to rhetoric sort of late in my academic career (largely as a result of working in the Lab), I figured I could use all the help I could get in building street cred.

Eric: After a year in the Immersive Environments group and a subsequent year PLing the first season of Zeugma, a part of me just wanted to interact with the lab at a broader scale. I enjoyed both my years in project groups, but felt like I didn’t have much time/chance to get acquainted with the work other groups were doing. Even with showcases, PL meetings, etc., my time and attention were mostly invested in my group’s work. I wanted to be an AD to see and help coordinate, without micromanaging or anything, the work of the lab’s various groups. I also wanted to get to know more people around the lab, and felt like I could contribute to the planning work that happens during the AD’s summer GRAships [graduate research assistantships]. On a less idealistic level, I also wanted to get some administrative experience under my belt for job-market purposes, and, appreciative of the relatively idiosyncratic organizational structure of the lab, thought it would be a good/interesting environment in which to get that experience.

Steven: Out of all of us I feel like I was in the lab longest before becoming an AD. I first worked on viz., then I co-PLed TheJUMP, after that I worked over the summer as a graduate research assistant and as a PL for Machinic Invention. I had applied for the AD position after my time co-PLing, but it was really my experiences over the summer and as a solo PL that sold me on the potential of the AD position, and it was after I had applied again that I finally became an AD. Like my fellow ADs I did want to be more involved in the workings of the lab. That first summer really opened my eyes to the rigorous processes involved in both organizing and running the lab. I thought that there was something incredibly satisfying in hashing out positions over the course of an afternoon-long meeting, and I wanted more. Along with the meetings also wanted a chance to really exercise my (at the time nearly non-existent) administrative muscle. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by my progress. Responding to and keeping up with email is hard work, but I’m making real headway.

2)    Kendall: How has being an AD changed your scholarship/pedagogy/professional network?

Will: Honestly, I think my scholarship must have suffered a bit in the short term, but ultimately it was enriched by the experience of being an AD. In the short term, there is so much work to do in terms of interpersonal contact that it is hard to know how and when to sit down and read and write. But this very experience is what also makes you learn how to carve out time for those very activities. My pedagogy definitely got better as I had more contact with more lab members and saw more examples of teaching in action. There is no doubt that it helped build my professional network. For example, as an AD, my pedagogy was visible because of the kinds of access that the AD-ship affords. So when labbies thought about remixing in the classroom, for example, they came to me in the same way that they went to Sean [McCarthy] when they thought about mapping in the classroom. As an AD, you get to kind of create a visible brand of pedagogy using lab resources that people can draw on. In one case, I was able to help someone do some remixing workshops in the classroom, which I wrote up for the Slatin Prize. 

Kendall: Will’s answer resonates with me, a bit painfully honest: it’s definitely much harder to focus on my own scholarship as an AD. There’s just so many tasks and projects that run in the DWRL’s background but that could easily expand to fill all one’s available time. Perfect for a procrastinating dissertator. I take the time to remark this challenge, since I recall English department administrators wondering aloud at last May’s emergency funding discussion [--this meeting was called in response to the College of Liberal Arts contraction of time-to-degree requirements--] whether being an AD would really impact one’s time-to-degree. YES it does, I said, nodding emphatically. Until that emergency funding meeting last May, I wouldn’t have considered this a negative, necessarily. I also agree with Will about how being an AD has expanded my pedagogical horizons and helped me join a professional network I might not otherwise have connected with.

Megan: On a practical note, the ADship does come with a teaching release for one semester each year. That “off” time was very productive for me in a way that my teaching semesters weren’t. Being an AD was a perfect way to stay connected to the academic calendar and be around people (as opposed to fellowship, which can be very lonely), so I found I had a lot of energy to put into my prospectus, dissertation, etc. The AD position nudged me to participate in professional networks differently than I would have as an individual scholar. For instance, when the chance came along in 2013 to apply to host RSA’s annual graduate student webinar, it seemed like a great way to get more visibility for our annual Speaker Series event. I wouldn’t have had the resources or the confidence to apply to host an event of that scale on my own, but since I was acting on behalf of the lab and was collaborating with other lab members, I felt more empowered to propose and ultimately deliver on it.

Eric: Professional network first. Most directly, the summer work I’ve done to bridge the gap in Zeugma contact--i.e. the five interviews I did at RSA 2014--put me in touch with a variety of scholars I’d never have been bold enough to approach otherwise. Researching candidates for the speaker series also gave me a better sense of the surprisingly small number of scholars working at the intersections of rhetoric and digital studies. In terms of scholarship, I feel like I’m still catching up with my experience in project groups. IE [Immersive Environments] gave me the chance to build/publish a webtext, which I may have never done otherwise. And it was a collaboratively built webtext, and large-scale collaborative authoring is something I might also have never done (I’ve co-written one other piece, but there was only one other author). Zeugma got me experimenting with other formats. My time as an AD has given me room to keep thinking about the scholarly possibilities of various digital media--so the time to keep working in the lab, building on what I learned as a project member and leader, is maybe the biggest thing. Finally, pedagogy: similar to scholarship, the extra time to hone my use of tech in the classroom has been the biggest boon. I feel like I’ve got finesse now in the way I use PBWorks in class, the way I incorporate digital options into assignments and structure class time for digital research/composition.

Steven: I’m still in the first semester of my ADship, so I’ll have a slightly different perspective (perhaps more optimistic) than some of the other folks. I’ve been enjoying the course release that I received this semester (I’ll be teaching again in the Spring). This has been the first semester I haven’t had to teach a course since Fall 2008, and I’m enjoying the extra time that I can spend on my scholarship. One thing that I’ve been noticing these past few months is that I feel like I’m much more in touch with the various opportunities that the lab presents, from equipment and support for my own work to different tools that could be useful in the classroom.

Cate: It’s certainly benefitted my professional network - both through events like the Speaker Series and simply acting as a more official representative of the Lab at conferences. In terms of pedagogy, it’s been an invaluable asset/boost to my skill set and sheer awareness of the kinds of things that instructors are doing with the available tools. Re-designing the Lesson Plan site forced me to familiarize myself with all the cool stuff people do in our classrooms, and I’ve definitely benefitted as an instructor. In terms of scholarship, though, I’m right there with Will. Being an AD unquestionably detracted from my scholarship/time-to-degree in spite of the teaching release (which I foolishly only took once). That being said, if I hadn’t been an AD I highly doubt I would have acquired the skills (or had access to the tools) to build my multimedia article that is now forthcoming in Harlot (April 2015). So the position hasn’t benefitted my dissertation at all, but I do have a publication under my belt that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

3)    Steven: How does gaining some understanding of university administration/working in an administrative capacity impact your take on academia/the profession/teaching/etc?

Will: It was just the tip of the iceberg, but seeing how things happen in the lab brought home the fact that the lab is mostly about people. I thought it was mostly about computers and digital technologies before I was an AD.

Kendall: I think of myself as easily institutionally minded. It is easy for me to think about what the DWRL needs as an institution to survive in the university. I think this is a big part of why I took to working on the Digital Writing and Research Certificate project: developing that program is a great way for the DWRL to curry status with outsiders. But I think I’ve learned the most from my ADship about the relationship between administration and teaching. The DWRL creates something no other part of our program can really match: a lively social environment for instructors to exchange ideas, get feedback from other instructors, and push themselves to take risks in their own classrooms because of the tools available to them in the lab. The ADs and the Coordinator (now Will) are the facilitators for this environment: by fielding questions, listening to instructors vent, managing the Blogging Pedagogy and Lesson Plan sites, leading workshops, etc., administrators are the reason or the way that the DWRL exists as a resource for instructors.

Megan: I second Kendall’s last point. Doing this kind of administrative work has shown me how, little by little, the lab staff keeps pushing the ball forward. Many of my favorite moments in the DWRL involved being part of collaborative strategy sessions and big-picture thinking about the lab’s future. But looking back over my few years serving alongside different members of the admin team, it’s really the smaller individual efforts that have added up to an energizing and supportive environment for all lab members and to a reputation that all DWRLers can be proud of. It’s been a real lesson in taking responsibility for something that you don’t always get to see through to the end. It is worthwhile to keep pushing that ball forward by taking on small projects that you’re passionate about or that you can use as an opportunity to learn.

Eric: (First of all, why is there an “anonymous turtle” logged in to this document right now? [Kendall: Now it’s Anonymous Axolotl.][Note: this roundtable was originally composed in Google Docs.]) I think working in an administrative capacity, in the lab or elsewhere, offers a little check on some of the idealism that can come with being a grad student. It’s made me more aware of the professional and organizational contexts in which our work unfolds (i.e. we’re not just living some vaunted, acontextual life of the mind outside of broader structures and strictures). That’s shifting my publishing and teaching in that I’m more aware of the ways that work can circulate and effect both me and the institution(s) I’m part of. I love doing the work of a lab AD, but it does attenuate certain kinds of optimism. 

Steven: One thing that I really began to realize during my first work as a summer GRA was that seemingly small details--things like the number of workshops that are members required to attend--actually have ramifications for how the lab, as a whole functions. It’s been incredibly interesting to begin to get a sense for how we can produce, or at least facilitate, the kind of atmosphere that we want in the lab--adventurous, scholarly, safe, supportive, exciting--by massaging the structures that I, at least, had initially taken for granted. I have some sense that an institutional space, at its best, is always chasing a particular high, a mode of becoming where all the different parts really click together and work gets done. At my most optimistic, at the tail end of an all-day meeting, I think that it’s this cohesive, productive high, that I keep in mind.

Cate: It’s certainly been eye-opening in terms of getting a peek behind the curtain, as it were. I’d concur with Eric in terms of the way it “checked my idealism,” and also, at times, my penchant for informality. When working with colleagues and friends (especially long hours in the summer), it can be easy to forget the nature of the job -- and that it is a job just like those out in the “real world” that most of us came to academia to avoid. There’s a collegiality and informality amongst grad students that might not be suitable for professors and administrators. I feel like being an AD was excellent training for when I start at a new institution and have to cultivate professional relationships. 

4)    Megan: How does being an AD alter personal dynamics, i.e., affect our relationships with peers?

Will: It made it impossible to hide out, which would have been my preferred mode of operating at the time. So I was forced into not just having relationships with peers, but mediating a lot of peer-to-peer relationships. I’m much less inclined to hide out or to try to avoid these kinds of social situations after having been an AD. 

Eric: On the upside, I feel more obliged and able to offer support in certain ways--advice, explanations of the lab’s resources, tech tips. Stuff that’s generally seen as positive. But it also changes the way I navigate the griping that often comes to characterizes our (i.e., grad students, and let me be clear I’m including myself here) relationships with each other and broader institutions. I don’t hear it as much as I did when I wasn’t an AD, but when people do start complaining about lab-related workloads, I find myself tuning out, walking off, or--on more energized days--trying to offer explanations. Not jumping in with reciprocal complaints, though, at least on lab-related issues. I’m still a peer, but there’s a sense of problem-solving mentorship that attends the position, as someone who’s in a better position to understand and explain the operations of our relatively small part of a much larger institution. (None of this is to suggest the lab generates gripiness. I think it does so less than most components of grad life, but griping is just such a central part of grad culture sometimes.)

Kendall: I love what Will says: being an AD “made it impossible to hide out.” I also love to hide out. I’m at my social best when I have a role to fill / a job to do, so being an AD makes it easier for me to get to know people throughout the lab because I have a capacity in which I’m comfortable. On the other hand, because I’m putting more time into the DWRL during business hours, I am less interested in hanging around for more unofficial social time. Or I could say I have a good excuse to be less social outside of work.

I also agree with Eric’s point about how administration changes grad students’ gripe-bonding. It makes gripe-bonding less available to us, and I’m really thankful for that. I think I hear less of it, too, and I definitely deflect it differently (what Eric calls offering explanations--not sure I do that exactly, but I do try to diffuse it more when I hear it). But I don’t think gripe-bonding is good for us, so I’m grateful to be insulated from it in some ways. I mean that I engage in it much less myself, in a much smaller group, and I think that’s actually been better for my relationships with my peers because it’s limited the scope and distribution of my own negativity.

Steven: I just noticed this recently, but I don’t spend any time in FAC 14, the lab’s grad student lounge/workspace anymore. Now, whenever I’m in the lab I’m either working or hanging out in the office in FAC 8. I think it’s had a bigger effect than I thought it would. I got a glimpse of FAC 14 the very first time I visited the lab, before applying to UT, and I give it a lot of credit for the kind of community that the lab fosters (it’s definitely a place of the kind of gripe-bonding that Eric mentions). In the office I spend most of my time with Will and Kendall, and not so much with the broader lab community. There’s the chance to chat whenever someone pops into the office, but it’s definitely a different sort of relation than was there before.

Megan: I came to UT and the DWRL wanting to be immersed in digital stuff, but being an AD made me a lot more sensitive to those who didn’t necessarily come in with that mindset. Many of my peers in the lab aren’t as focused on new media in their own scholarship or pedagogy, and in that respect they represent the majority of scholars I’ll likely work with over the course of my career. As ADs we often wear the mentorship hat, but what pleasantly surprised me was how much depth my peers’ own projects brought to my understanding of technology and pedagogy. My peers always kept me questioning and resisting the quagmire that using technology in the classroom can sometimes get us into when we bring it in ways that are less purposeful than they should be. My peers in the lab have prepared me to navigate academic relationships outside of our happy little home in the FAC basement, and I’ll continue to draw on those experiences in future positions.

Cate: I’m not really one to “hide out,” so I didn’t need encouragement to socialize. As an outgoing and chatty person by nature, I had friendly relationships with most of the people working in the Lab by the time I applied. Being an AD shifted the dynamic in several of my friendships, without a doubt, and it was sometimes hard to negotiate the times when I had my “AD” hat on in contrast to “friend” moments. In a lot of ways, I rather inevitably stopped feeling like a peer, since I was responsible for pushing people to turn things in on time.

5)    Will: A lot of what we do is literally keeping the door open so people can get coffee or water. (A lot of communication happens this way.) But we also arrange potlucks and food for orientation or speaker series. We bring in cookies. We defrost (or we don't) the fridge. We buy a freezer to have an ice cream social. We move furniture. We clean (or don't clean) the space. We let people in. We keep people out (or not). We adjust the lights. We play music. We create atmospheres. Now the question: How do our performances as hosts in a space like the lab affect our pedagogy, service, and scholarship?

Will: Sean and I talked a lot about the kinds of atmosphere we wanted to create in the lab. Open labs and the certificate program both grew out of those kinds of discussions. Much of the idea was to just be hospitable, to keep the door open, to invite people in, in various ways. It was about developing a level of activity that was generative and exciting. 

Eric: For me, the host role makes me more rhetorically aware. Though I didn’t have a particular investment in digital rhetorics/writing when I joined the lab, I was quickly taken with the work that happens here. That makes it easy for me to see the exciting potential and value of the lab’s work--it’s obvious to me that a podcast, a 3D printer, social media experimentation, etc. is just so great. Being an AD, though, forces me to think about the hesitation and lack of context others might bring to the lab. How can we make our spaces feel inviting and hospitable to those who might be, if not skeptical, at least unfamiliar with digital rhetorical work? This happens when I’ve written emails about workshops, the lab newsletter, in how we’ve reconfigured FAC 8 and FAC 14, and so on. It’s a nice check on the tendency to take the values of one’s own academic interests for granted/as going without saying.

Megan: Hands-down the most important thing I learned about hospitality is that people love mushroom-and-olive pizza. I happen to really dislike those things, but I made the mistake once of insisting one such pizza would be one too many, and I won’t ever make that mistake again. But really, the role of host has made me much more attuned to people’s particular ways of dwelling in a space that is at once professional and personal/informal. In an administrative role you become so much more accountable for helping a culture emerge, whether that’s through ordering a lot of vegetarian tacos or inviting lab members to seek targeted help, take the lead, or just stay a little too long making small talk. The lab so often serves as home base for people within a huge institution, not only while they work there, but also long after they’ve left UT. A lot rides on how you receive and empower those people, even if it’s just through caffeine.

Cate: Hosting is one of the more invisible aspects of service that I think I’ve always been rather attuned to, since I’m fond of hosting outside of my administrative role. Feeding people well, making an environment welcoming, these are vital aspects of an administrative position especially, but it bleeds over into pedagogy and scholarship as well. I’m a big fan of considering my “guests’” (students, fellow scholars) needs when presenting information or an argument. It’s important to find a balance between what I need (to convey) and what will make for a welcoming, pleasant experience for my audience. At Lab functions, this would manifest by my taking the lead in ordering food: making sure I got to eat what I wanted, and also that others would have enjoyable food options. In terms of scholarship and teaching, I can see it in the way that I strive to enjoy what I’m doing and to make it useful for my students/readers.

Kendall: Megan’s point is really well made: the hospitality of the DWRL administrators extends not only to newcomers to the campus but also to alums, giving them a home to return to, as well as a desire to return, and often a venue for an invited talk, etc. Ordering food does, I think, exert a surprising amount of influence over the DWRL’s culture, i.e. having good food that’s accessible to vegetarians, vegans, people with allergies, & so on does show us to be aware of other people’s needs and welcoming to them. Creating sources of free coffee inexorably also creates sites of graduate student convocation, and thus conversation. The robustness of this culture actually gives instructors new ways of connecting to each other (for example, outside of 398T [the required class for new assistant instructors], or outside of a bar) and I think it really encourages DWRL members to share ideas for their teaching and research, contributing to each others’ excitement and vision and quite frequently helping bring what at first feel like goofball ideas to meaningful fruition. In a way this culture, which itself establishes the bond between DWRLers, also thickens this bond any time that it’s engaged.

Steven: As mentioned above, I’m excited to see how my time as an AD will affect my teaching in the Spring. Imagining forward I can see how being in such an overt administrative/institutional role could make me more conscious of playing that same function in the classroom. What does thinking of myself, while I teach, as an administrator and as a host do to my teaching? How does it change the relationships that I’ll have with my students? If anything I’d like to bring some of the hospitality that Will mentions in the question to the classroom. How do I keep my door open (in terms of availability both in and out of the classroom) as an instructor? Things to think about going into next semester.

6)    Megan: Because ADs choose project groups and visiting speakers, they serve a kind of curatorial function in terms of issues in the field that deserve particular attention in any given year. So… What are some of the practical, ethical, and public relations issues involved in setting the lab's research agendas and how do we work through them?

Will: I kind of alluded to this in the question above about professional networks. I think like, for example, the DJ Spooky event and the podcasting group and the investment in audio gear was very much tied to my role as AD. There are so many advantages to that kind of access, but as the question implies, there are also ethical and PR issues that you have to work through. If you are given access to the lab’s resources in a really visible way, you really have to make sure to reinvest the dividends back into the lab by sharing the knowledge you gained through that access, making sure some deliverables come out of it. You also have to adapt that knowledge for projects that look nothing like your own (by asking, for example, how literature folks might use podcasting or mapping applications). And then you also have to let go of some of the curatorial functions/agenda setting as your term comes to a close. (Unless you are like me and refuse to leave or give up the reign/reins.)  

Eric: Since most of us in AD positions are in rhetoric, I think legitimating rhetoric is part of the PR and practical work we do: making visible what it is to lit students, to English dept. faculty, etc. And, within the confines of the DRW [Department of Rhetoric and Writing], showing the affordances of digital rhetoric work. Assuming we think rhetoric has important contributions to make to academic, public, and digital discourses, I suppose that’s potentially an ethical issue as well. In addition to making folks aware of rhetoric, I think another ethical/practical issue is backing up the claims about marketability that we make. Helping lab members in lit, for instance, understand how to articulate what they’ve done in the lab on the job market, at conferences, etc. seems like important work. I think it’s important we keep abreast of current work at the intersections of digital rhetoric (in what project groups we create, who we invite to the Speaker Series, etc.), so that our project members/project leaders can respond to relevant conversations in their job-market experiences/CVs/etc.

Kendall: Bouncing off Eric’s remark about marketability, I think working on the DWR Certificate been the outlet of this curatorial function for me. Even now, I don’t necessarily feel connected to the digital/technological conversations in rhetorical scholarship, although I would say I definitely think the DWRL has made me more aware of and literate in these conversations. The Certificate does seem to have a broader audience: it’s for humanities scholars who want to develop their portfolio of digital skills. It’s very practical work (although it can be theoretical), but I think the Certificate helps lab members both build up a skillset and come to see the value of digital skills (in teaching and in scholarship). Putting all this together as a Certificate portfolio is one way of curating those skills / showing them off for the job market.

Megan: I’d like to focus on the public relations aspect, because one questions we ask ourselves every single year when we’re looking at potential guests for the Speaker Series is, Will this person appeal to an audience outside the DWRL and DRW? We have a responsibility to lab members to provide them access to scholars who are dealing with issues that are the subjects of important and current conversations in the intersection fields at which the lab is situated. But we also have a responsibility to increase our visibility within the university and the network of scholars that share our passion for one or more of the above-mentioned fields. This visibility is one facet of demonstrating our value and ultimately our need for and worthiness for continued funding. One of the lab’s greatest strengths is the specificity of its mission, because that’s what allows us to fill a niche for writing instructors and that’s what makes the research and resources we produce so valuable to our peers at other institutions who are doing similarly specific work. On the other hand, those key decisions we make each year about what kinds of research to do and which speakers to invite hinge on our marketability to a much larger and more generalist audience. So balancing those responsibilities is always a tricky process, and much of that rests on ADs. It definitely requires creativity and a group effort to think through all the implications.

7)    Eric: One of my questions would be about institutional memory. Given the relatively rapid turnover in ADs, how do you/we pass on (or fail to pass on) knowledge, procedures, and so on from AD to AD? This seems like a question that's relevant to grad students in general--working in (often slow-changing) institutions but as part of a labor pool that's constantly and necessarily turning over.

Will: I’d like to say this happens through consistent, thought-out, well-crafted documentation that is centralized and archived in a place where future generations can access it and use it. I’d really like to say that. That is not the case. Because we are technology folks around here, we tend to try out lots of new technologies for new administrative tasks. Consequently, our institutional memory is spread out all over the place. We do keep fairly close track of the places where it is spread, though, for what that’s worth. And our archiving project seeks to address this issue. 

Eric: I’d follow Will in pointing to the archiving project. It seems like one major trouble is that, no matter how meticulously you document something, it’s easy for the medium to become unreadable in fairly short order. (Honestly, it makes me see the value of books, which prevent plenty of formal/material sorts of experimentation, but stick around in a certain way.) I don’t know that it’s something that will ever be “solved,” but is something that requires constant, processual attention. And there is something to be said for making sure we’re familiar with how to remediate certain objects/media fairly early on in our process of engagement with ‘em (I’m thinking of the Drupal 7 viz. relaunch/migration here.)

Kendall: Will’s answer is spot-on. Our archives are currently… everywhere, although we have designated a year of project group time and a (coming) semester of specialists to addressing the lab’s archives. It’s kind of great to reflect on the germination of DWRL Archiving two summers ago: the elaborate joke superhero The Archivist. Our weird senses of humor helped us actually identify a need that was not being met in the lab. Or, it is being met, but not in a coherent, accessible way. Right now, we rely heavily on overlapping ADships to pass on knowledge: veterans show new people the ropes. But we also need to externalize this knowledge in order to protect it, which we try to do in the form of wikis w/instructions in them, or calendars with general deadlines/tasks, etc. It may take a few more years, even, but I think having an Archivist around to steer our practices will ultimately preserve our institutional memory and make it more legible to outsiders (as in the suggestion to re-arrange the alumni page on our site by year rather than name: we need to think about what outsiders need to know about the lab’s history).

Megan: I encountered this challenge when we began to formalize our alumni network. It ended up taking me a very long time to piece together a list of past lab members and research projects (though it was ultimately rewarding to see where lab members had spent their time in the lab and where they went from here). Since others have addressed many of the factors that make it difficult to keep and share records like these effectively, I’ll just point out that I see recent archival efforts as marking a very positive shift in lab identity. Because the lab sprung up from some savvy experimenters and slowly became a larger and more formalized effort over time, the need for archiving wasn’t always clear. The fact that we feel that need so intensely now is great, because it means that we have developed a strong sense of our own value to rhetoric, writing, and technology studies and that we can imagine a future where that value will only increase with more accessible archives. I think that taking on the challenge with dedicated resources speaks to an enthusiastic commitment to the future as much as a strong respect for the past. 

Steven: I’d like to go a little bit against the grain here and say that I’m pretty skeptical about the efficacy of material archives when it comes to (active) institutional memory. That isn’t to say that the archive won’t play an important role--its worth remember what that lab has done before, who was involved in it, what some of our successes and failure have been--but that the archive is never going to be where a new AD will turn when they have a question about day-to-day procedures, current software/hardware issues, etc. And if it is, perhaps it represents a failure of institutional memory. Personally, I’ve found that what worked well for me was to move from lab member to co-project leader to project leader to AD. Institutional memory is, to some degree, the product of successive enculturation, and we produce it through cohesive community. We learn how to be lab members, project leaders, assistant directors by working alongside folks who are or have been in those positions before. 

Thanks to Cate Blouke, Will Burdette, Eric Detweiler, Kendall Gerdes, Megan Gianfagna, and Steven LeMieux for participating in this roundtable!


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