Sharon Leon and Digital Pathways

Sharon Leon joined the Department of History at Michigan State University as a part of the Consortium for Critical Diversity in a Digital Age Research (CEDAR). Her research focuses on developing projects on digital public history and digital networking projects related to enslaved communities in Maryland.  Prior to joining MSU, Leon spent over thirteen years at George Mason University’s History Department at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media as Director of Public Projects, where she oversaw dozens of award-winning collaborations with partners from around the country. In addition to her role in CEDAR she also serves as a Director of the Omeka web publishing platform. In our conversation, we talk about her path toward digital work and how it intersects with broader questions within the field.


Digital History, Omeka, Public History, Graduate Education, Digital Learning

The Conversation

Chambliss: So the first question I always ask people. First of all, Sharon, thank you for joining me.

Leon: You are most welcome. I’m happy to do this.

Chambliss: The first question I always ask people is how do you defines Digital Humanities?

Leon: That’s an enormously difficult question to answer. Because I think Digital Humanities is particularly hard to define because I, as somebody who comes from an interdisciplinary background have come into Digital Humanities from the disciplinary background of history. I think that I see it probably a little bit different than probably 70 percent of the people who think of themselves as doing digital humanities. But for me it is a process of asking and answering questions about humanities driven subjects and or topics using digital technology. I don’t really fall down on the digital technology for research methods side or digital technology for publications side of the argument. I tend to play on both sides of that fence. I think both things are important, but I think that the idea is that you’re trying to do something new to see something new by using technology both on the research end and on the publication end.

Chambliss: Well that’s a great answer. Like there’s, I think arguably no wrong answer to that question.

Leon: Right. And that’s not a very disciplinary driven answer.

Chambliss: Right. Other people have given similar answers, not necessarily discipline driven, but that’s a great way for me as well to like to talk about you because I know that you got your undergrad degree in American Studies from Georgetown and then your Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Minnesota. And I was really curious about this because I’m training as a historian, but I feel a lot of affinity for people who do American Studies because a lot of the stuff that I do, sort of like off end American studies, people do. I was actually kind of curious about this because I thought, oh, what was it about American Studies that spoke to you as a process. What drew you to it as opposed to the more traditional History. Because one of the things that as an undergrad I remember professors saying is don’t get a degree in like, don’t do like American studies just get like a pure disciplinary degree.

Leon: They said that as an undergrad? I understand people saying that for a graduate degree. For an undergraduate degree?

Chambliss: Well they knew I was going to go to grad school.

Leon: Right. No, that makes sense. The answer to that question has nothing to do with digital things. And it was my introduction to college level work, came through something called the liberal arts seminar at Georgetown, which was a team taught two semester seminar where the first semester was, and it was on 19th-century revolutions. It was English and history in the first semester and philosophy and theology in the second semester. I actually never went, had a college experience that was not interdisciplinary. And so that the next logical place to roll out of the liberal arts seminar, which was basically European in focus, was into American studies because it was the major interdisciplinary program in the college at that time.

And so actually the subject area that I ended up being an Americanist was kind of arbitrary. Yeah. But it turned out that there was emerging digital work in the American studies program and so, and that was when the web was new, it was 1995 right. You could be a digital humanist by knowing some HTML. And that’s where I started.

Chambliss: Right. And I knew that, and this leads me to my next question because I know that you spent 13 years as director of public projects for…

Leon: Rosenzweig.

Chambliss: Did that for history and new media at George Mason. This is actually, in my mind, one of those like prototypes of an alternative academic track. But you the already doing this before they started talking about you can do an alternative academic track.

Leon: That’s right.

Chambliss: And it’s also interesting to me because I think one of the things about this alternative academic track that we don’t necessarily always play out as much as we can is how much digital is infused within it. I think there’s actually one of the things that’s really sort of interesting, it’s both problematic at some level because we actually are debating what we mean when we say Digital Humanities and the implications of that. But it’s also really interesting. Tell me about that experience and the conversation that you were having with yourself as that director at a center that arguably and how honestly I think of is like having defined Digital Humanities-

Leon: Or Digital History.

Chambliss: Yeah, Digital History in particular.

Leon: I would say Digital History more so than digital humanities writ large. Well, so what I would say is I did not become director of public projects until after Roy died in 2007. There was no public projects division until he sort… that was part of a plan. He set in motion in his planning for what would come after he was gone. Prior to that I was associate director of educational projects. I spent the first however three or four years working both on public history projects but also on projects, really centered on teaching and learning questions.

Chambliss: What were some of those projects?

Leon: Well, so there was a project called historical thinking matters, which was a collaboration with Sam Weinberg’s group at Stanford. Sam, who wrote the great book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, about the cognitive science behind thinking historically. And then eventually there was a clearinghouse project that was funded by the Department of Education called the national, well became

It became just the URL, but it had a longer name and it was an effort to bring together everything that was the product of the teaching American history grants that had been a major funded project of the Department of Education for 10 to 12 years. Those and some public history projects, the object of history was about teaching and learning experiences around material culture at the national museum of American history. And so, but as far as an alternative academic track, I don’t think that was what I thought I was doing when I took that job. It was a one-year postdoc to work on a history of science project called echo, which was about collecting the contemporary evidence of history of science so that we could do history of science work going forward in a born digital age.

It was a project that Dan Cohen worked on, and Tom Scheinfeldt and Sean Takat’s that was funded by the Sloan Foundation because some of my dissertation work was about history of science. And my attraction to the center for history and new media was really simply that there were a thousand things going on. And I was sure that I wasn’t going to be bored and I was a little bit worried I was going to be bored in a traditional academic job.

Chambliss: So let’s go back. When you were thinking about that job, did you see like a job ad, did you see like a-

Leon: Yep. Job ad on H-Net.

Chambliss: Job ad on H-Net like so many people.

Leon: Like so many people, job ad on H-Net. But also I knew a lot of people who were very close to Roy. I did not know Roy himself before the job, but Randy Bass, who I had worked with at Georgetown was a very close friend of Roy’s.

And so, Randy sort of put in a good word for me and my advisors in Minnesota all knew Roy from, basically, I think from the OAH and the AHA. The sort of not secret thing about Roy is Roy knew everyone. And he used those contacts. I mean he really sort of put feelers out across the board to try and get people who would be, I think willing and able to handle the multifaceted nature of doing large scale digital projects that were grant funded and deliverable driven and those sorts of things. And would be okay with going to work five days a week and not really doing your own work.

Chambliss: Right. So that means that when you looked at the job, you thought about your own skillset. What were some of the things that happened to you in grad school that set you up, you’re like, oh yeah, oh, I can do this.

Leon: Right. Well, so it was actually having worked for Randy Bass as an undergraduate on the American studies crossroads project-

Chambliss: Okay. Which is a-

Leon: Which was the core site for the American Studies Association. It was one of the very first scholarly association sites. And what differentiated it from all of the others is, it was super content rich. It had a lot of content that was created specifically for the site. It was not really like a brochure for the organization. It really was a rich content site about doing digital work and pedagogy and interdisciplinary work and stuff like that.

Chambliss: Would you think of it as a, the kind of model that we think of the day sort of like digital publishing, like it was an online-

Leon: Yeah.

Chambliss: Like, physical repository, peer reviewed or not peer reviewed?

Leon: It was not peer reviewed and it was all volunteer labor. But it then also sort of eventually rolled out into something called the visible knowledge project, which was a multi-year funded thing to sort of study as we were talking about Sam Weinberg’s work the cognitive science behind teaching and learning in these areas and how digital interventions can help support learning. And that project was still going on when I went to see H and M, and Kelly Schrum who was the director of educational projects for the entire time I was there, was working on pieces for that. Some of the visible knowledge project got folded into what was the ever expanding sprawling site that was History Matters.

Chambliss: And so you got that job as was described as a postdoc, was very-

Leon: It was a one year postdoc. It was contingent.

Chambliss: Very common. Yeah, right. Very common sort of academic slot that a lot of people get before they try to find their tenure track job.

Leon: That’s right. That’s right.

Chambliss: So, especially in the context of today, the idea-

Leon: Even more common now than it was then.

Chambliss: Yeah. But the idea that, oh, I’m going to stay, you did the one year and you have this thing that’s on your CV. The opportunity comes up, well the grants going to go on. Do you want to stay? And they ask you, you say yes I do. But that’s a really complicated-

Leon: Yes. Well, so and in fact that’s not what happened. It was not that echo got renewed. It did. They hired two of us for that job. The other fellow was Josh Greenberg, who is now a program officer at the Sloan Foundation and had been the director of the first director of digital projects for the New York Public Library after he was at C, H and M., but they hired two of us.  I was like an utility infielder and the very first thing I did was started working with Roy on a grant application for what would be the object of history. And so the first real thing that I did was write a grant with him. That was a three year grant that got funded. And so like we worked on this, of course, I’m going to stay and work on this, and I was working on historical thinking matters and they were multi-year projects and they were not things I wanted to get up and walk away from.

And as happened every year or every three months, there was another grant proposal to work on and they just sort of started unfurling and nine years later, yeah, I switched over to the tenure track after year nine, which also won’t ever happen to anyone ever again because it was a weird, weird turn of events. I didn’t plan to stay, but I didn’t plan to go. I just stopped applying for outside jobs.

Eventually it was like, oh well I can, it is contingent and it is soft money, but I know that I have the skills to make the funding appear. Together we can make the funding appear to keep us all going. And it was incredibly stressful, the more staff had to be supported. But because the team, we kept getting projects and it was, we got more projects. We needed to hire more people, which means we had to write more grants, which is-

Chambliss: You’re on a-

Leon: Yes, yes, so it was a treadmill. It was absolutely a treadmill.

Chambliss: But in some ways, the ultimate version of the digital center model is what you were doing?

Leon: Yes, yes. Because there weren’t, there were very few other digital centers at that time. There was the group that is now A.S.H.P. M was then too, but was only as HP and now it’s got some other letters involved with it at CUNY and there was IATH at UVA.

Chambliss: Which is?

Leon: Yeah, Institute for Advanced Technology and the Humanities I think is what IATH stands for. VCDH which was gone now, Virginia Center for Digital History.

Chambliss: Ah, right.

Leon: There were a bunch of little centers that scattered all over UVA that got combined into something bigger eventually. And there was MYTH at Maryland and Matrix was forming here, but they were all pretty new. Matrix is the same age that the center is basically, on its way to year 25, but the rest of them were all a little bit newer. I think IATH was 1992.

Chambliss: Right. And of course, as you said you made the transition to tenure track and you were assistant first.

Leon: I had been reviewed, I had had an extern, basically an external review to get promoted to associate research professor while I was not on the tenure track. I got promoted without tenure and then I moved over to the tenure track, kept my title but had to go through tenure review.

Leon: Again. Because it had not gone through the college committee. It had gone straight to the Dean.

Chambliss: Right. And this is interesting because I know that he recently wrote a piece in your blog about LaDale Winling’s piece that was in AHA Perspective about getting tenure and you made some great points about the more complicated nature of gaining tenure. And I really sort of at least mean tonight as well because I think it’s interesting. Of course, you come to MSU this year as have I. We’re sort of starting out at the same time here at Cedar and one of the things, and we are teaching together, that’s another reason why she’s willing to talk to me. Right? We’re teaching the intro to the Digital Humanities certificate here and it’s one of the things that’s really interesting to me to think about new academic professionals that people who are in graduate school now, what their relationship to digital will be. It’s incredibly complicated as we literally talk about every weekend and sometimes within the seminar it’s incredibly complicated.

And so for someone like yourself who has experienced what I would think of as many different faces of the digital landscape, how do you think about this process of being an academic who’s doing digital work? What are the pitfalls, what I mean like you are a really successful example of this? And I think it’s meaningful too, sometimes I’ll talk to students who want to go to grad school and be like, and they’ll say stuff like, I want to be like you. And I’m like, you can’t necessarily do that because whenever you look at a professor, you’re looking at a survivor.

I would like you to talk a little bit about how you see that landscape as someone who’s been in it so deeply and from many different perspectives, right? Like as it’s come up in the podcast this season already, we’ve talked a lot about funding. Funding is the dirty little unspoken word when it comes to the age, if you don’t get funding, if you don’t have a Rainmaker like yourself, right, you’re screwed. Like it’s not, it’s not, it’s not going to be good. Like that is no question there. We can debate a little bit, it’s interesting because-

Leon: That landscape has changed too.

Chambliss: Has it?

Leon: Yeah. Well I mean I think it has, I mean it’s like this answer of what do you say to graduate students who are coming up now about what their potential path and career might be like if they’re interested in doing digital things? To some degree I feel like it’s an impossible question to answer because my path and your path are historically contingent. Right? And the moments in which we were able to do the things that we could do and have been successful doing may have closed, in a variety of ways. And so to say that we at the Center for History and New Media were able to survive on grant funding. 95 percent grant funding for a big staff for a lot of years was also because the amount of competition was low for that funding was much lower until we hit critical mass. And we hit critical mass of staff and skill, we could then easily and quickly respond to opportunities.

It’s nearly impossible for anybody to start from scratch and get to that point now. Competition is super high for funding and nobody can afford to have the critical mass of staff and flexibility to be able to turn and pounce on those like, and there are just fewer things to bounce on that. Then there were, I mean there was a lot of energy and funding that is not as evident anymore. The Hewlett Foundation is not funding educational projects anymore. MacArthur is not funding, like the attention of some of the larger foundations have turned elsewhere. And so that landscape has changed too.

But I also think for graduate students who are coming up, I lived through a period where if you wanted it, you had to make it from scratch, which is why I run a software project. But those software projects are in place now and exist now and so there are many more ready pieces that people can start to assemble to support their own work. To get further on their own without a major infusion from a national funder or something like that. But I think, it’s always going to be different and there’s not a chance regardless of sector that anybody could replicate the path that you took or I took or any of those folks who are of our generation took.

Chambliss: Right. The structure of academia now as you say, is more complicated. And I’m always struck by the fact that a lot of the work that defined it in humanities, and problematic to make these mass generalizations. But a lot of the work that defies Digital Humanities does come from centers that have a kind of infrastructure regardless of the size of the infrastructure. But they didn’t have an infrastructure around producing digital projects. And one of the things was always, when I was at my former institution, people would talk to me about digital things because I would fall, I was the digital person and I was like, I don’t remember when this happened. Like there was never, there was no ceremony, there was no process. It was just like a cumulative mass. And then like the title was branded upon me.

And they would about, oh can we do this because they see something online. I’m like, do you know how much money those people have? And like the technical support that they have, it’s not the same. Right. The infrastructure around doing things digital is so much more complicated than we give a credit to. And to me, this is one of the things that’s really interesting to think about when you’re talking to like a younger professional because as you say, there are tools in the toolbox they can go to and they can pull out and they can do something like we talked about this in our seminar. But one of the things that is real, a kind of dawning realization that I have is like everything that they do will be judged by the fact that there’s a toolbox. And so therefore-

Leon: Did you make the best use of the things that and forever the question, what new thing are you bringing, right? What new thing are you bringing to the table? It may be a new method and sort of the kinds of funding that comes out of the Office of Digital Humanities at any age is by the way it’s framed predicated on the notion of innovation. But the other kinds of funding and the other kinds of support that come for digital things are not necessarily funded on technical innovation. And so to keep the eye on trying to make something that is solid technically, functional, accessible, attractive, useful, but that really lets us ask and answer new questions about the humanities content is the goal, is to just keep those things in balance.

Sure there are going to be people who are going to be able to invent new methods. I think about the work that Lauren Tilton and Taylor Arnold are doing right now on distant viewing. As like, all right. That’s, outside of Lev Manovich’s attempt at it, that’s a new conversation. They’re opening up space for a new conversation, but there’s not, that happens every once in a while. But that doesn’t mean that there is not enormous, enormous amounts of good work happening that are in established fields. And huge amounts of work left to be done in those established methodological approaches. And so yes, the toolbox is there and the question is how do you mobilize the toolbox as a scholar. To ask and answer those questions or in my case as a public historian to sort of have this conversation about shared authority and helping the public make sense of their own past and to ask and answer good questions about their own history and everybody else’s history who may also be relevant to them.

Chambliss: Right. And the other part of this question, and you also had some insight into it, is like the infrastructure, right? We have people doing these little things, and again, this is something that’s what happens at MSU. Like, oh, well if you’re in CAL you have access to X, but if you’re not, if you’re in social science, whether they’re totally different set of things…really sort of gets at to the unspoken question about resources and the IDH for individual sort of practitioners and for institutional practitioners. So you’re the vice president for the Corporation of Digital Scholarship. A name I had not heard until you told me. A shadow organization-

Leon: A shadow corporation. It is not really a shadow corporation.  It’s not, I’d be happy to explain it, explain what it is.

Chambliss: But it goes to the heart of this sort of institutional infrastructure question.

Leon: Yes. The reason the Corporation for Digital Scholarship exists is that universities are not well equipped to provide long term financial and infrastructural sustainability to digital work. And you know through the course of about a decade, now 15 years at the Center for History and New Media. Some of the things that got made are major open source software projects. And because those pieces of software have become part of the infrastructure that the rest of the digital humanities community depends on. Omeka, Zotero probably eventually Press Forward, Tropey, Tom Scheinfeldt working on something new called Tube now. These pieces start to be part of what people depend on and there was no way to guarantee that we could keep them going.

One move was to establish an outside corporation to take fee for service, software as service. The corporation for digital scholarship is where your money goes. If you pay for storage for Zotero or you have an account and then that money gets filtered back into pay the software teams that keep those pieces of the infrastructure healthy. And so people may ask us as well, is this a replicable model for other open source software packages? And I think probably not. I mean it depends. It really does depend on whether or not you have a viable service you can ethically sell at a reasonable price to people who need it, who are willing to pay for it. And that’s not true of most open source packages. What you’re paying for and Zotero is you paying for the storage.

And the infrastructure for the sinking in those sorts of things. And to not have to run the server yourself and to not, it’s a convenience. It’s a convenience, but not every piece of open source software is set up so that it has a piece like that that might be necessary. It worked for us. It has worked for those projects. It has been more than successful, thankfully, because it means that that development continues and we can continue to make that software viably available to the world for free.

Chambliss: Right. Yeah. And as a Zotero user, Thank you.

Leon: You’re welcome. You’re welcome. I take no credit for Zotero at all. I am as big a fan as everyone else. I discovered just the other day by looking at my ID number for the API that I was the 15th Zotero user.

Chambliss: Oh wow. Okay.

Leon: Yeah. So not as high as Dan Cohen or Josh Greenberg or Sean Takats. They were like one, two and three.

Chambliss: All right. The implications there about sustainability, which are, always use questions. I mean I think sustainability is a huge question for individual scholars, like can you sustain this? Whenever I talk to students about digital projects, like sometimes I’ll say, when you leave this campus, will you be able to keep the thing that you just described to me going, especially if you’re going to go into academia?

Leon: Or is there a viable way path to sunset it?

Chambliss: Yeah, yeah. There it is. Is there an end, and anyone who does DH will tell you it never ends. It never ends.

Leon: No, it doesn’t. It’s never done.

Chambliss: Question about the future of DH seem always looming around the individual practitioner perspective and around it from an institutional perspective and whenever we talk about it, we never go, we always like to interpose those two, right? Like, can you get tenure with a Digital Humanities project, with a Digital History project? It is a visual question, but it’s also an institutional question. They’re intersecting in very particular ways. When you think about the future, when you think about like, oh yeah, these are things that really worry me in terms of the future. Again, I think about this from your sort of unique perspective, what comes to mind and don’t worry, whatever you say, it’s not going to be written in stone.

Leon: No, no, no, of course not.

Chambliss: No one’s going to, no one listens to this podcast, so you’re fine.

Leon: Well, I don’t think that that’s necessarily true. I think I worry just like everybody else about the amount of intellectual labor that disappears through digital decay on a regular basis, I really, really, really worry that sustainability is not like evaluation is not the first set of things that we start planning for when we plan for something new, because we’re sitting in a library having this conversation. I have some ideas about the viability of dockerizing things so that you may run an emulator and run it over again. But that we’re producing a lot of really insightful, useful, interesting scholarly work that has the chance on a regular basis of just disappearing. And part of the reason is that we have not invested in the system of higher education in the resources that the libraries need to preserve and present the work that we create.

Kate Timer, who is a really well-noted archivist blogger, writes a blog called Archives Next and just announced the other day that she’s retiring the blog after many years. It was a hub of conversation about the nexus of the digital and archives and all of those questions. And she’s edited a whole bunch of books and is editing some of those essays into a book, but was kind enough to point to the fact that the University of Maryland had what web crawled the entire thing. It will continue to be available from their institutional repository. That’s great because Kate’s work is invaluable. And I teach it all the time and I was like, ah, it’s going to go away and I’m not going to, I’m going to have to use the internet archives to find these sorts of things. But the amount of our digital life that depends on the generosity of Brewster Kale is enormous and that’s a structural problem we need to fix.

And so while we’re fighting about how much the next Elsevier subscription is going to cost, we need to be fighting on the other side about reinvesting that money in sustaining and preserving the scholarly production of the faculty at the individual institutions. Whether that needs to be institutional repositories on an institution by institution basis, I don’t know. Maybe there are consortia ways to multiply those resources and make them more equally shared so that it’s not only research one universities whose faculty’s work gets preserved.

But yeah, no, I worry about that all the time, which is part of the reason why I’m super interested in all of the software we make, having output formats that are the lowest common denominator, digital formats. And so, it’s the reason that Omeka S produces linked open data in a JSON feed, all your stuff right on back out. I don’t ever want to make anything where people feel like they’re trapped. And people are complaining, as it is, about the fact that content management systems sit on top of PHP and MySQL, that that’s not minimal enough for them. And I, it’s not, but we get some advantages and some multipliers to actually having a database at your disposal in those situations. It’s always a tradeoff of investment of resources and functionality.

Chambliss: All right, well I think that’s a good place to end. It’s always great to think about the future and be like, oh, that question is not yet solved. And of course when we talk about Digital Humanities and Digital History, perhaps those are even more important questions to think about, who’s going to solve that. But I really do want to thank you for taking the time and-

Leon: You’re most welcome. Happy to talk with you.


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