CIRCA:What RAs need to know


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So, you have been offered a graduate research assistantship (GRA or RA) on a digital humanities project and you know nothing about the digital humanities or how to do what you are expected to do. Here are some general ideas, some things you probably can do already, and some suggestions as to what you can easily learn to do.

I have also written a specific guide for my RAs here, Research Assistant Guide

General Suggestions

You actually know a lot more than you think you do. You have been a student for years and have completed tasks like writing papers, giving presentations and maintained a FaceBook page. Some reasons not to panic:

  • Your manager will help you. The manager wants the project to succeed and they get you reasonable support. They will also try to match your skills and interests to the needs of the project.
  • Your manager is throwing you into the pool without a life vest to figure out how you swim and what sort of vest you need. An RAship is very different from a course where everything is paced and you aren't expected to do anything until after you learned it. In projects you are asked to do something and then helped to do it - an inversion of how courses work. Don't panic, take it one task at a time and learn to learn what you need in order to get things done.
  • All sorts of skills you have will prove helpful like the ability to write clearly.
  • You will enjoy the rapid task-focused just-in-time learning. By the end of the RAship you may find that you have learned more from this apprenticeship than any course and you have the completed tasks to show for it. Enjoy doing things that matter to others in a way that papers don't.

Things you can do to survive

  • Take an inventory of what you know so you can communicate what you can do. There is often a phase early on when tasks are allocated - if you know what you can do (and what you want to do) they you can ask for the tasks that interest you. You can also ask for help with the things you don't know, and you can ask about what you think you know.
  • Learn how to ask for help! There is no more important skill. Learn how to say that you don't know something. In graduate courses you are expected to pretend that you know everything because the goal is to become one who seems to know; in project work what matters is getting stuff done so no one cares if you don't know, they care if you don't do. You have to undo the habits of the graduate culture of confident knowing and acquire the Socratic false modesty of pretending you know nothing. That is not to say that you should question everything, and you should avoid asking for the same help twice, but as a professional you are expected to tell others what help you need.
  • Ask for help from fellow students! The others on a project often include RAs who have worked on such projects before and they can be an invaluable guide as to what is really going on and how to survive. Ask them for help, charm them, offer to treat them to a coffee after meetings if they will help you interpret what is going on. In graduate courses they are your competitors (I know, that shouldn't be the case, but it is a common pathology) in project work they are your allies against the absent manager with high expectations. It is actually in their interest to help you as what you do will impact on them.

Things you should be able to do

There are, however, some things that your manager expects you as a graduate student or senior undergraduate to be able to do without instruction:

  • Question formation: Years of writing papers should have prepared you for situations where there is a broad and fuzzy issues which you need to focus by formulating questions. That's what you did when asked to write a paper on some broad subject and if trained in the humanities you are better at this than you think. The trick is learning to post computable questions. This is often a tacit task that you aren't asked outright to do, but is embedded in something you are asked to do like a literature review. It is worth writing out the questions you think you are trying to answer or objectives you think you are supposed to achieve as a way of checking. Share the questions, they could help the group focus. To be honest most graduate students can post questions, but they are often awkward and elaborate the way they are when you start writing a paper. You will get better and the questions will get more interesting as you interatively focus. In many ways the heart of a project is narrowing the question or objective down to what can be achieved with the resources at hand. See CIRCA: Question Formation for more.
  • Literature review: You should be able to use bibliographic databases and the web to conduct a quick literature review that can be shared with others. To be frank, I find that many GRAs can't really know how to do this well at the beginning, because they haven't done it for others and they haven't done it to a research standard. But you have done it and with a bit of work you will get to the point where you can do it for the group. What you need to learn to do a lit review in a way that saves others work. That means boiling down the literature so you can take the group a summary that rapidly gives them the answers they need. It also means documenting the review so that it can be used months later when papers get written. See CIRCA: Literature Review.
  • Build a simple web site: Chances are you have built a web site even it was only a matter of maintaining a FaceBook page. The point is that the technical stuff about coding is trivial compared to the communicative stuff about how to get a web page to say the write thing to an audience. Think about how much you use the web. Think about how you have used content management system that hide the code like FaceBook or a blog. You know more than you think and the rest can be acquired step by step. See CIRCA: Building a Simple Web Page.
  • Present information: You have spent years listening to professors present information and you have probably been asked to present yourself in seminars. You probably know the basics, but if you don't see CIRCA: Presenting Information. It is important to be able to present information effectively because what you learn as an RA needs to be shared with the team. You are useless as an RA if you aren't helping the team and that will mean updating others and presenting information in more or less formal venues.

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