By Jennifer Parrott
In early June, I made the long journey from Pennsylvania to Victoria, B.C. to attend the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, which has been held at the University of Victoria since 2003. It was my first time attending the institute, and I was not sure what to expect. I took the course on “Large Project Planning and Development,” which promised to provide participants with a foundation in project management, project development, and even some basic guidelines for grant writing. All of these elements are key to my postdoc at Bucknell University, where I’ve been working with a team of people to develop a digital scholarship center and program.
As an English PhD making the transition into my role as a collaborator on a digital scholarship initiative, I’ve spent much of the past year figuring out how to effectively work with others on a variety of projects. Throughout my year at Bucknell, I have been considering questions of how to collaborate productively, how to manage individuals as members of a group, and how to present my own voice within these collaborative spaces. As humanists, we are trained to work alone on our scholarship, so simple things, like clicking “reply all,” felt very foreign to me.
Of course, my position at Bucknell requires me to do a great deal more collaboration than “replying all” to emails, so I was excited as I sat down for the first time in my DHSI course. As assistant director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, Jennifer Guiliano, our instructor for the course, develops and manages projects, writes grants, and supervises staff members. Over the five day course, she provided participants with a strong foundation, covering everything from what constitutes a project to statements of innovation and significance to budgeting, to announcing upcoming projects and grant awards. We covered logistical matters, including software for project management, data wrangling, budget worksheets, work plans, charters, evaluation and project documentation. In short, we discussed everything necessary to develop and manage a large-scale project, and I left class with a combination of strategies, contacts, and examples that will serve me well.
But my biggest takeaway from the course were our discussions about how to manage people within project groups. Perhaps the most surprising and most important thing that I learned was that a key component of project management is managing personalities, including your own. Knowing the project staff’s strengths, weaknesses, and work habits can allow the project manager to assign responsibilities, set deadlines, and create teams more effectively and help ensure that the project progresses in a timely, productive fashion. Furthermore, knowing your own strengths, weaknesses, and habits can make you a more effective project manager–knowing when you are part of a problem and when you should remove yourself from a project is as important as any other aspect of managing a project.
Similarly, we also discussed the tricky situations that sometimes occur when a postdoc is managing a project and needs to manage more senior members of a staff. Besides taking comfort in the fact that these situations are not uncommon, we discussed strategies for keeping everyone on schedule to meet key deadlines while maintaining professional relationships. Some specific strategies involve setting deadlines several weeks in advance to allow participants more time while keeping the project on track, getting everything in writing, and saving all written communication in an organized fashion in case you need to remind project members of agreements or deadlines. Ultimately, I learned a lot about collaboration in general. As a humanist, graduate school prepared me for solitary work, but as a CLIR fellow, the majority of my work is collaborative. Learning how to manage various timelines, meetings, excessive email, and a variety of personalities and work styles is invaluable for my work at Bucknell and for just about any collaborative situation. If I had developed these strategies as a graduate student, managing my dissertation could have been a very different experience.
Here’s an example of the types of discussions we had over the course of the week: if the budget for your project is cut: would you, A) immediately revise the expectations for the project to reflect that you can accomplish less with fewer resources? Or, B) attempt to accomplish the same goals with the reduced resources at your disposal? As a result of taking this course, I realized that it is sometimes better to adjust expectations so that you avoid creating problematic precedents that could lock you into a pattern of accepting dwindling resources with rising expectations.
What types of project management training have you had? What would you like to learn?
Jennifer Parrott was a 2012-2013 CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow at Bucknell University. She will join the English department of Clayton State University this fall.