Pulling Back the Curtain on Transatlantic Collaboration

When we began the conversation that led to the creation of Mapping the Scottish Reformation in the spring of 2017, neither of us could have anticipated how quickly MSR would take off, or how incredibly generous the Scottish History and Digital Humanities would be as we navigated the contours of this new and exciting part of our respective careers. One of the things that we remain intensely grateful for is the transparency of others who have embarked on their own digital humanities endeavors. To a person, our fellow scholars have been willing to peel back the curtains of polished finished projects to discuss how the various steps, strategies, and challenges along the way. These “inside looks” have been nothing short formative for our work.

In that spirit, we wanted to offer some insights into our own collaborative process in gathering and visualizing our data, applying for grants, and establishing good communication and a feasible workflow—all while working on two different sides of the Atlantic.

Traditionally, scholars have collaborated from within a single institution or country, eliminating the potential difficulties of different time zones and travel restrictions, not to mention disparate sorts of bureaucratic norms and red tape. Yet with the tools of Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, Google Docs and Sheets, and cloud storage, the time is ripe for transatlantic collaboration, particularly in a field like Scottish History. Scotland’s diaspora, tourist industry, and uniquely fascinating history (we’re biased, we admit!) has meant that scholars and genealogists in North America and well beyond are interested in exploring the nuances of Scotland’s people and past. We think a collaborative project like MSR shows the potential of transatlantic collaboration to invigorate the study of Scottish history—but how exactly have we made this work on a day to day basis?

One of our slightly less awkward live transatlantic collaboration shots from spring 2020

The success of our collaborative process has hinged on three interrelated things: a clear digital workflow, regular communication between ourselves and other interested colleagues, and flexibility. The two technologies that have underpinned this whole project to date—Google Sheets and Wikidata—are stored entirely on the cloud and updated in real time, meaning either of us can access them at any moment and, crucially, at the same time. In the first data gathering phase of this project, we divided up the presbyteries within the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale and recorded our findings separately but on the same Google Sheet. We communicated constantly about any editorial or content challenges via text, email, or on a Google Doc called, fittingly, “concerns.” Both of us are, by habit, very quick responders to emails and texts, meaning that we could often troubleshoot questions such as “should we count this as the precise date of installation in a parish?” or “how do we record the first post of this schoolmaster turned minister” in real time, so long we were both still in working hours on our respective sides of the pond.

The “concerns” Google Doc also meant that we could make shared notes of oddities or issues in the records and respond to each other along the way. We highly recommend that any collaborators, especially early on in their process, keep some sort of shared running document like this, as it will come in surprisingly handy for grant-writing. You’ll also want to use a shared cloud service for any static or finished documents, such as Dropbox or Box. If we were a bigger project team, a collaborative workflow service such as Trello might have also been very useful.

an example of one of our many Google Sheets pages

Our workflow has also been strengthened by frequent communication about our progress in going through the presbytery records and regular planning for what comes next. We knew, for example, that the stage after data collection would involve entry of that data onto Wikidata and the running of test visualizations. Chris was, from the outset, more interested in (and, I’d argue, more capable of!) learning about and working with Wikidata, Leaflet JS, and a range of mapping technologies. I, on the other hand, was very content to continue augmenting our dataset, which meant that Chris was able to build much of our technological infrastructure while I focused on finishing the remaining presbytery records. The recognition of different strengths and interests, and clear communication about those, is essential for distribution of labor and creating the most efficient workflow, especially when looking ahead to next steps. 

Our process as we have moved through Stage 1 (data-gathering) and into Stage 2 (building the pilot user interface) has been also greatly enhanced through regular communication with other team members, collaborators, and interested colleagues. Mackenzie Brooks, W&L’s Digital Humanities Librarian and a member of the MSR team, has been an indispensable go-to for technology related questions, as has Ewan McAndrew, the University of Edinburgh’s Wikimedia guru. We have frequently turned to W&L’s associate provost and Advisory Board member Paul Youngman for questions and suggestions on funding. Our Advisory Board as a whole has been a constant well of support, insights, and critical questions that have guided the development of our work so far. And of course, all the colleagues from the Scottish history and genealogy communities who have commented on our social media posts, offering their thoughts and queries, have helped us imagine what MSR could become.

This list of people we’ve leaned on is long, but the lesson here is clear: a digital humanities project may have only two co-directors, but the best ones are born of multiple communities. To others embarking on such projects, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask questions, even the most basic ones. In fact, ask them as widely as possible, and share your work-in-progress whenever you can in presentations and in print, rather than waiting to unveil a more polished final product. 

our first joint presentation, in January 2020 at Edinburgh’s Centre for Data, Culture and Society. Other essential venues for sharing our work-in-progress have included the Digital Archives in the Commonwealth Summit, the Ecclesiastical History Society Podcast, the Scottish Indexes Conference, History Scotland, and the International Review of Scottish Studies.

Last, we want to emphasize flexibility as a core aspect of the collaborative process, especially when the project team is international. The UK and US have different calendars for the academic year, varied expectations for the balance between research, teaching, and service/administrative work, and assorted rules for things like research leave and buying out teaching. Because of this, there will invariably be certain times during the year where one of us is too swamped to devote much time to Mapping the Scottish Reformation. Flexibility has been key, with ourselves and each other, especially as we’re both at teaching-focused universities. It is quite common for one of us to say “as a heads up, I won’t be able to get to this for at least a week,” or “sorry, I lost the thread in the abyss of my inbox, can you resend?”. This sort of dialogue that foregrounds flexibility has been crucial, especially when designing work schedules for funding bids. We would certainly recommend that any collaborators beginning a research project as ambitious as MSRhave a conversation about their other research commitments/goals, the typical rhythms of their academic year, and any anticipated challenges.

Over the past three years, we have applied for numerous grants; gone through nearly 10,000 manuscript pages; collected data on 874 clerical posts, roughly 500 significant events (such as depositions and suspensions), 116 parishes, and 7 presbyteries; and begun work on our pilot user interface. Throughout, a clear workflow, good communication, and mutual flexibility has kept things running smoothly and kept us excited about this work. We hope this is some use to the followers of MSR, and we will keep pulling back our own curtain as this project progresses!  

Mikki Brock

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