The “Should I include Digital Humanities in my grant proposal?” Guide for Humanities people

Many Humanities scholars feel like you can’t get a project funded anymore if it doesn’t include DH. Some even ask me “Do I have to include DH to get funded?” Well, that answer lies outside of my expertise. I can, however, answer the probably even more important question of whether you should include DH in your grant proposal for the main purpose of improving your chances at getting funded. And if you decide to do so, how to do it right. In this post, I will give you my thoughts on the topic and also provide a checklist you might want to use to answer this question for yourself at the end.

As I trust you have already figured out, I am not the person granting you funding neither am I in any way involved in the progress (at least as of now). So please take the thoughts I share here for what they are: my two cents. I’m just a random DH person (whom you seem to trust but anyway…) and I’m sharing those thoughts because? Well, because you asked, of course! (Or you probably wouldn’t be reading this post.)

So this is your friendly neighbourhood Ninja, being blunt the way you love it answering some frequently asked questions about DH.

Let’s start off with the main question underlying all this:

Why does one get funding?

Well, that’s easy, isn’t it? Because you’re cutting-edge-good at what you’re doing. Which I quite trust you are. But is that subject area DH or in any way DH-related?

To get grant money, you usually need to be perceived to be at the cutting edge of what you’re doing. What skills or qualifications do you have to back up that claim in DH? If you’ve never done DH, the answer is: Probably none. Will this make you look competent at what you’re planning to do? Obviously not. So this might be a first quite obvious reason to not include DH unless you can include somebody other than yourself who can “vouch” for the quality and cutting-edge-ness of the DH part of your project. (Read more on how to or how not to recruit such an individual or organisation later on.)

For a DH project to sound really good to a committee, both the D part and the H part need to be really good. You need to show that you are excellent at this particular interdisciplinary combination of D and H. Or are you excellent at whatever it is you’re doing and you want a website to go with your project? The website use case doesn’t qualify as DH. Sorry to have to break that to you.

I’ve heard at an ERC information event once that they’d rather you didn’t pretend to do DH when you don’t or exaggerate how “technical” you are if you aren’t. Don’t try to impress. Just try to do good work. You can only do good work if you’re actually good at what you’re proposing to do. So are you good at DH? If not and you also don’t have a cooperation partner to fix that, probably don’t include DH in your proposal.

Reasons why so many people who are probably not qualified to include DH into their proposals even think they should

You might wonder why I’m even making this post. But I have noticed that a lot of Humanities people seem to think that “you can’t get a project funded nowadays if it doesn’t include DH”. That’s where I wanted to help out. Because I get why people are at this point even if they are utterly clueless about DH. They don’t mean any harm. They were just told this scary information and now they’re stressing and making bad choices. But hey, I’m here for you. You’ll get all the info you might want or need right now.

Are you only pretending to do DH?

Oh, don’t we all do some potentially unethical stuff to get the grant money? That’s why they usually have this statement asking whether there are ethical concerns to you project. Do they usually count “pretending to do DH” in that section? Probably not. But if you have to, please don’t make your unethical thing pretending to do DH. Even if only because that will not make your grant proposal stronger. (Read on to learn more about that.)

If your goal is to include DH in your project with the least amount of work, effort or engagement with DH you possibly can: Please don’t do it. Not only is this morally bad – people will know too. DH people can smell this motivation off you from miles away. This will not make you popular. It’s also unlikely to result in a strong grant proposal.

Don’t waste a perfectly good grant proposal trying to force in a DH part which doesn’t make sense!

Also, mind you that the more DH becomes established, the more reviewers will probably come from the DH. And believe me, you do not want to hear what a DH reviewer actually thinks about your “obviously only pretending to do DH because you think that’s so easy” proposal. So just be aware that including DH into your proposal might cause you to get a reviewer from the DH. Do you really want that? Can your proposal hold up to that standard if you aren’t even really sure what the DH are? My limited experience with writing grant proposals has shown so far that you should always ask yourself first what kind of scholar is likely to serve as a reviewer for your project and then cater a bit to what you think they might be looking for. This was a real eye-opener to me. I once wrote this grant proposal somehow thinking a DH person would review it. Turns out the person was not from the DH at all and really didn’t understand most of what I was saying. (By which I’m not saying they’re stupid but rather, I was a bit stupid to not take that possibility into account.) Oops.

So yes, funding agencies say they want DH. But by that, they mean actual DH. Pretending won’t do the trick and won’t do you any good. Don’t waste a perfectly good grant proposal pretending. They will know. Them stating they’d like to fund DH projects because DH is *the shit* right now doesn’t mean you’ll get funded for pretending to do DH (at least not usually – but some people get lucky who are really good at faking competence, I guess). Don’t be fooled into thinking it will be easy just because that’s what people say funding agencies are looking for. That doesn’t mean it’s free lunch. There is no such thing as free lunch and “The DH have it easier” is a fallacy. Read more on the “The DH have it easier” argument in this post.

So the question of all questions really is: Are you doing DH or pretending to do DH?

The possible downsides of including DH in your grant proposal

  1. You might come off looking incompetent if you don’t do it well. This will weaken your whole grant proposal which might have been really good otherwise. What a waste! And because you’re already here, I want to share an uncomfortable truth with you: Most people aren’t even aware just how clueless they seem when they try to talk about DH but aren’t actually into it at all. Please don’t be that person. Don’t embarrass yourself. Be aware of what your strengths are and what they aren’t. And remember, I’m saying this as your friend!
  2. You might seem like a leech or “optical ally” or be perceived as “label DH” in case you actually get the project (see a post on the topic). I mean, likely no one will care. But then again, people do get bitter if they feel you got a grant your project really didn’t deserve. This will, of course, not hurt you in the short-term but might in the long term. If this was your “entry ticket” to start off in the DH community, you might be off to a bad start. It’s basically a bit like optical allyship if you get yourself into a position where you end up somehow “representing DH” but you do it without any engagement with DH or inclusion of the actual DH community, just to profit from the trend yourself. Honestly, you probably already know that nobody likes optical allies.
  3. A poorly done DH section will drag your whole proposal down! Do you really have the ability, time, resources and DH contacts/cooperations to pull this off and make it good?

Doing your homework

That means you have to learn about DH enough to be able to come up with ideas for possible synergies or common points of interest (read What are ‘real’ Digital Humanities and how to get started?).

This will likely be at least equal to the amount of effort of going to one real DH event (summer school, taking a class, etc.), some online self-education like indicated in the linked blog post as well as reading at least 1-2 introductory books. Plan at least a few months for this, so your brain has time to process. “Going digital”, if you’ve never as much as had a brush with the digital so far (except from general computer literacy we’re hoping you alredy have if you’re planning to include DH), can be harder than you might think. I mean, think about it. You don’t even know what’s out there yet. Give yourself time. If the deadline for the proposal is less than 4-6 months away, you haven’t “done the homework” yet and you are also unfortunately not at the disposal of some pretty ingenius and super friendly DH folx, then you’re reading this post too late. Save the DH for next time.

By that, of course I don’t mean you need to learn to become a full-on DH person yourself. But what I do mean is that there really is no way you can do meaningful DH-related work if you don’t know what ‘digital’ even entails.

To get a grip on this, it might be helpful to at least get a bird’s-eye-view-brief introduction to how programming and data work behind the scences. It’s not strictly necessary for all purposes. But it will likely save you from lots of embarrassing comments where nobody will tell you you’ve just embarrassed yourself. Believe me, these situtions are frequent. Friendly DH people might roll their eyes at some frequent mistakes but really, do you want to be that person who gets “the DH look of doom” regularly and isn’t even aware of it? Please don’t be that person. Maybe also read Don’t call it a database! So anyway…

Have you head about ‘Data literacy’? Now might be a good time to get some.

Ask what’s in it for them?

The DH are not your service provider. They don’t “owe you” anything. Treat the subject accordingly.

Don’t even think of contacting DH people 3 weeks before the deadline when all the decisions have already been made. Don’t make the first contact with DH people 2-3 weeks before the submission deadline or when all decisions have already been made and there’s no actually any room left for them (financially as well as in terms of the research to be done).

Do contact DH people early on when there’s still room for actual cooperation. Calculate that you will need some time to get everyone on the same page, then generate ideas and synergies and then flesh it all out into a convincing grant proposal.

Another note on giving them enough time or rather how much time is enough time? Giving them enough time means enough time so that the DH people can actually contribute anything of value without violating their work hours, days off and weekends! Remember, only because you do all nighters for your pet project doesn’t mean you can expect some people who are bascially strangers to you to do the same for you.

And no, your project is likely much less of value to them than their contribution is to you. (Because a lot of people seem to be labouring from the delusion that your project is so great that the DH people should be grateful that you include them). Likely, those DHers have at least 10 other such cooperation requests and if you’re not particularly well prepared or seem like a really good team player who values the DHers – why should they pick you? They have plenty to choose from. You probably don’t. So be nice and come prepared. Don’t waste their time or boss them around. They don’t owe you. You owe them if you want them to help you.

Unlike many H people, DHers are much more used to teamwork because it’s just such a crucial and omnipresent part of DH. They can smell it off you whether you’re a bad team player. And they have enough experience to know that having a cooperation project with someone who’s a bad team player is an absolute nightmare. Take that into account when approaching them. And maybe ask yourself if you’re really enough of a teamplayer that you actually want to do this.

Find out what DHers actually do. And no, their job descriptions mostly don’t include introducing you to DH or giving intros to DH in their free time just because you’re such a cute person. Their job is not doing your homework for you. It’s not their job either to educate you about DH unless you’re attending a training or class specifically for that purpose (which is hopefully paid work for them). Nor is it their job to help you find out what it is you want. (Please refer to your shrink or life coach for that kind of advice.)

DH isn’t your free lunch, it costs at least one 20h position

If you want DH in your project, accept that it’s not for free. You need to be actually willing to allocate serious project resources to this. Because, believe it or not, DH work is more than just “making a website”. And even if it were, websites need to be maintained at an alarming rate. What’s even more alarming is the rate at which Humanities scholars tend to want modifications to their websites.

Humanities scholars also have a proclivity to submit really inconsistent data, so the DH person will need a lot of time to clean up your mess behind the scenes. And mess gets produced constantly. Things need to be modified. You get ideas for new functionalities. Mistakes happen. You need that DH support. So the DH person can spot that you’re creating bad data early on and stop you. Not only two weeks before the end of the project. (Also take into account that having a DH aspect likely means you will need to have your content ready a while before the end of the project or there will be no time left for the DH person to actually create a final digital output for you. Don’t overstep your deadlines so the DH person has to invest three weeks without sleep at the end of the project to save your ass!)

Where people get this idea from that you could just get a DHer for 3 months and then shit handles itself, I really don’t know. Just believe me when I say: That’s not how it works.

There is no DH without serious cost. DH is not your free lunch! Also, please be sure that you only employ a DH person with an amount of hours resulting in a wage they can live from. So no, not for 10h. 20 hours is the absolute minimum. And for the whole project. No three months at the beginning and three at the end. Anything below 20h also likely isn’t “DH enough” that it will actually give you the “DH advantage” you’re probably looking for.

You’re not ready to invest that kind of money? Well, that’s your answer right there.

Do it properly or not at all

If you aren’t even sure what DH is, you talk vaguely about “databases” or “websites” when mentioning anything you think is related to DH even though very likely, technically, that’s not at all what you really mean. And you don’t know what’s wrong with that, you aren’t even DH-savy enough to be able to tell. That’s a bad sign. And no, making databases and websites is not the main part of what we’re doing, thank you very much. So much for being perceived as a service provider.

Can you name one suitable or en-vogue technology for DH work related to what you’re doing? Can you name one project which is similar to what you have in mind? Can you name a subfield of DH related to what you want to do? Can you name a subfield of DH at all? Do you know what it is you actually want to do? If you didn’t answer yes to at least one of those, please come back later once you can.

So this all sounds like I’m trying to discourage you from including DH in your grant proposal. This is a false impression and absolutely not the case. I’m just trying to make sure you are aware of what you are getting yourself into because you probably don’t have a blunt person like me in your real life who will share this crucial info with you.

But if I still haven’t discouraged you now, you are probably a good candidate to actually do include a DH part into your grant proposal. Lucky you!

Now let’s get to how to do it right.

Once you’ve decided: How to include DH in your grant proposal the right way?

  1. Do your homework. That means you have to learn about DH enought to be able to come up with ideas for possible synergies or common points of interest (read What are ‘real’ Digital Humanities and how to get started?). This will likely be at least the amount of effort of going to one real DH event (summer school, taking a class, etc.), some online self-education like indicated in the linked blog post as well as reading at least 1-2 introductory books. Plan at least a few months for this, so your brain has time to process. “Going digital”, if you’ve never as much as had a brush with the digital so far (except from general computer literacy we’re hoping you alredy have if you’re planning to include DH), can be harder than you might think. I mean, think about it. You don’t even know what’s out there yet. Give yourself time. If the deadline for the proposal is less than 6 months away, you haven’t “done the homework” yet and you are also unfortunately not at the disposal of some pretty ingenious and super friendly DH folx, then you’re reading this post too late. Save the DH for next time.
  2. Learn from my mistakes and anticipate who might end up reviewing your project: Are the H parts understandable for a DH person and are the D parts at least somewhat understandable for an H person? If your proposal is truly interdisciplinary, you need to write it so that both sides can fully understand it! Otherwise, your chances will be low. Also don’t forget to include both sides into the relevance part you will be stating as the first three sentences of your proposal (1) subject and why it’s important to people outside of your field, 2) scary research gap and 3) how you’ll fill it, for more details, see Karen Kelsky’s Hero’s Journey inspired Foolproof Grant Template here and here).
  3. Contact actual DH people early on in the process (not two weeks before the deadline where all the decision have already been made) and integrate them into your proposal, always being mindful about what’s in it for them. Acknowledge your current level of realistic DH skill. Initiate cooperation early so there’s still room for what the DHers want (and be open to give them a real share of your project money).
  4. Come with your homework done and bring concrete ideas, so DH people have a basis they can work with.
  5. Don’t be an imposter – go to actual DH events and engage with the community. You’re trying to become part of it, after all, if you’re considering including DH in your grant proposal.
  6. Be somewhat wary of borderline-DH people who seem in denial about the fact that they don’t have much of a grasp on the DH community as a whole. There’s nothing wrong with them but maybe don’t come to them for advice. So when talking to DH people, maybe make sure they’re actually part of the DH community themselves. This can be verified, for example, by checking their CVs and seeing if they are part of professional organizations and regularly go to pure-DH conferences. There are many people who are “on the edge” of DH themselves, for example working in a project with a light DH touch as a DH person, even though they might only have extremely niche skills or knowledge of DH; or they work in a DH project as an H person but present themselves as DH in your H-field. Nothing against them, except when this goes wrong, but they might not be the best people to come to for advice if they don’t actually have a grasp of the DH community beyond their own project. Some of them are in denial about this (!). If they aren’t, they will probably refer you to someone more competent straightaway. So bascially, you might happen upon one whose niche skills transfer to what you want to do by chance but you can’t tell before the fact, so be careful.

The Checklist: Should I include DH in my grant proposal?

  1. I’m only pretending to do DH for the grant money. –> No. We’re all selling ourselves to the system in a way but please leave DH out of it.
  2. Do you know what the term ‘Computer Literacy’ entails? Do you have it? Then, unless you’re an extremely important established professor, please get these skills first, then come back to this post.
  3. Do you know what the term ‘Data Literacy’ might entail and if yes, do you think you have some basics? If yes, you’re off to a good start. Keep going, keep learning! Then maybe you should include DH into your grant proposal once you’re ready to actually produce a good proposal.
  4. Do you know what DH is? Are you sure? Please explain it to a DH person for a reality-check. –> It’s probably a no.
  5. Do you go about your life calling anything and everything a database and don’t even realize DHers present give you “the look of doom” each and every time you do it? Did you never notice this until I’ve told you now? Then you’ve got some work left to do. Don’t include DH in your proposal at this stage.
  6. You think of the DH as service providers who “owe you” anything? –> No, absolutely not.
  7. How much time is there until the deadline? Is there still enough time, money and wriggle room left so that the DH people can make a meaningful contribution (meaningful being “meaningful for them”). Is there anything in it for them?
  8. Some more control questions: Can you name one suitable or en-vogue technology for DH work related to what you’re doing? Can you name one project which is similar to what you have in mind? Can you name a subfield of DH related to what you want to do? Can you name a subfield of DH at all? Do you know what it is you actually want to do? –> If you didn’t answer yes to at least one of those, please come back later once you can.
  9. Are you ready to invest in hiring a DH position (at least 20h) for the whole span of the project? –> If no, then forget about it.

So that’s it for now. Let me know if you think I forgot some crucial points or if you disagree completely. Let me know about your experiences.

That’s it for now and excuse the irregular, infrequent posting schedule at the moment. I’m sorry to say I really don’t have more resources for the blog at the current time. But I will be back with more posts, hopefully in July.

Best,

the Ninja

PS: Potentially of interest are my posts:

  1. Formulating Research Questions For Using DH Methods
  2. Looking at data with the eyes of a Humanist: How to apply digital skills to your Humanities research questions
  3. Should I start doing DH?
  4. List of Resources for getting started with (teaching) digital methods

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