Proposals for New Grant Programs

I spent part of yesterday morning contributing to an email discussion of digital humanities and virtual reality with the good folks at the North Dakota Humanities Council. This was both fun and productive. One result of these conversations is that I was encouraged to propose some new grant initiatives to the NDHC. These are just proposals, but I wanted to think out loud here on the bloggie-blog to gets some feedback from as wide an audience as possible. As with any grants, the outcomes are only as good as the program will allow. Poorly articulated grant programs produce poor projects.

The first of two new programs that I’d propose would be called Digital North Dakota Grants. These grants have three goals:

1. Extending the Reach: The state of North Dakota has long suffered a diaspora of sorts as people with strong North Dakota ties have moved elsewhere for a better climate, more opportunities, and a different life. These individuals often retain a strong sense of connection to the state and its communities. The energy and remittances from this diaspora community has had an impact on life here in the state. The Digital North Dakota Grants would be a way to engage the North Dakota diaspora in the vibrant, local humanities scene.

More importantly, perhaps for the NDHC is that these folks have resources, and as the NDHC has turned its attention toward development to ensure that our programs can weather upheavals in federal funding, we need to expand the impact and reach of the NDHC to the diaspora who have typically remained active in state initiatives.

The population of the state has historically trended older, but recent trends have shown that the state is, in fact, getting younger and the media age of ND residents is now below the national average. Our younger constituency typically lacks the financial resources of the North Dakota diaspora, but should nevertheless be a target audience for humanities programing. Digital North Dakota grants would help bring a generation of citizens more familiar with digitally mediated discussions into the conversation.

2. Celebrating the Local. The National Endowment for the Humanities initiated its Office of Digital Humanities in 2011. This office has funded a wide range of grants that they recognized as having national and international impacts. They have been somewhat less interested in digital projects that have local impacts or reflect the more focused priorities of local communities. As we approach the 20th anniversary of the 1997 Red River flood or the 50th anniversary of the publication of Elwyn Robinson’s influential History of North Dakota, we encounter local events that speak directly to history of the region, the state, and our communities. Funding to support digitally mediated projects that engage these events (as examples) is unlikely to come from a federal sources (and even if it does, the NDHC brand should be associated with work to preserve, celebrate, and reflect on these memorable events).

3. Preserving the Conversation. The NDHC is remarkable in its ability to stimulate conversations. All too often, however, these conversations, discussion, and engagement are ephemeral. Digitally mediated conversations offer a way not only to expand the conversation but also to preserve it allowing future generations of North Dakotans to reflect on how certain events or encounters transformed their ways of thinking or even their communities. For example, the recent tumult over the new University of North Dakota nickname provides a fascinating perspective into the relationship between UND stakeholders and Native communities, ideas of North Dakota identity, and the politics of race in the state. Creating a digital application where members of the community can contribute their reactions to this process, while it remains energized by emotions, polemic, and conversation, presents an exciting way to document and capture the local history of the state at a particular moment in time.

With these goals in mind, my proposed grant would encourage applications that (1) extend the reach of traditional humanities programming, (2) focus on local concerns, issues, collections, and conversations, and (3) feature robust data management plans to ensure that both the program and conversations are preserved. Successful proposals must stimulate discussion, focus on local groups or communities, and encourage and preserve dynamic and thought provoking engagement with the humanities. Purely archival or access based initiatives will not be funded unless they foreground dynamic opportunities for reflective and reflexive engagement with collections. Whenever possible proposals should involve open source software and encourage free, open access materials.

In my formal proposal, I’ll include case studies funded by other state humanities councils like Washington’s, DC Digital Museum or Vermont’s wonderfully simple, Civil War Book of Days serial email.

The second proposed new grant program would focus on the North Dakota Humanities Council’s already successful GameChanger Series. One of the most exciting things about this series is how effectively it stimulates discussion and brings together a diverse and dynamic group of speakers and from the community to engage with the most pressing issues of the day. The first GameChanger focused on conflict and culture in the Middle East, the second focused on the challenges and opportunities of the digital world, and next year’s series will celebrate 100 years of the Pulitzer Prize.

The disappointing thing about these events is that the energy of the conversation tends to dissipate rather quickly as the attention of the small NDHC staff ramps up for the next year’s event. As a result, it is sometimes difficult to determine whether the game has, in fact, changed (or just the playahs). The KeepChanging Grant Program would support programs and projects that continue the momentum and themes of the GameChanger series in the three years following the event. Each year at least three grants would be available with at least one grant set designated to support a project related to each of the previous three years of the GameChanger. (Wow, that’s hard to articulate in a clear way!).

The goal of the KeepChanging program is to extend the impact of the GameChanger series without taxing the small NDHC staff. It will also provide us with an informal measure of the impact of the GameChanger in on the humanities in the state. Presumably more engaging events will spur ongoing interest.

As per usual on the blog, I’m interested in any and all feedback on these ideas. They are, as I said, just proposals; just my thoughts, man – right or wrong.

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