Reconsidering skunkworks

January 14, 2020

This is a lightly edited version of a talk I gave at MLA 2020, in a panel organized by Dr. Carrie Johnston and Rennie Mapp, titled “Being Human in DH Project Management”. My thanks to Carrie and Rennie for putting it together, and to my fellow panelists for being part of the conversation, and especially to Laura Braunstein and Quinn Dombrowski, who both read early versions of this talk and provided feedback and encouragement. I hope to do more with this subject; this piece is really just a short, 12-minute start at framing a research question.

Reconsidering skunkworks; or, What might a politics of work look like in a digital humanities project management context?

As someone who has worked to build up DH support and programs, and help people who are working to create DH projects, I’m often in a position to hear people talk about the support that they wish existed; the programs that they want to create. More often than not, they invoke the idea of a DH skunkworks, innovation lab, or createspace – there are so many names – something like the UVA Scholars’ Lab – somewhere that they can work on projects unconstrained by academic bureaucracy or the strictures of the tenure track. Though the term skunkworks originates with Lockheed Martin, it became prominent in DH discourse through Bethany Nowviskie’s “Skunks in the Library: A Path to Production for Scholarly R&D,” which began as a talk/blog post in 2011 and then was published in the Journal of Library Administration in 2013.

A “skunkworks” (all one word) describes a small and nimble technical team, deliberately and self-consciously and (yes) quite unfairly freed from much of the surrounding bureaucracy of the larger organization in which it finds itself. This enviable cutting of slack and tolerance of the renegade is offset by placement, on the shoulders of the skunkworks team, of greatly raised expectations of innovation.

As Nowviskie explains, the rationale for having a skunkworks comes from the management principle that “if you want unusual results, you can’t expect that they will come from playing by the usual rules.”

Sometimes I think that when people read the article, they stopped after that sentence, and ran off to set up their innovation spaces, and never came back to read the rest, where Nowviskie explains that for a skunkworks to, well, work, an org needs to avoid distracting the skunks with “everything that constitutes a path to production for the stuff they’re building” – but notes that for the skunkworks to be more than just “innovation for innovation’s sake,” you need a path to production – the good stuff that the skunks build is meant to be applied by others, developed and refined further, maintained and integrated into larger communities and organizations. And this is work that is not meant to be done by the skunks themselves. I’ll pause there for a moment, while I (and several of you, no doubt), think about the job ads we’ve seen that are looking for people who will develop innovative scholarship, and maintain it, coordinate its use within their local organization, and publicize it to the larger national and international communities – to be the skunks and the path to production as well.

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I still hear the ideal of skunkworks invoked, still see them emerging, or see people trying to get support for them – but what I see is less the full vision in Nowviskie’s original piece than the fizzy first half of the idea. And yet, I can remember how appealing her blogpost was when it first came out. I found (and indeed, still find) that vision appealing. “Skunks in the Library” was a call for organizations and their leaders to be attentive to the potential of digital tools at a time when I frequently heard DH being dismissed as a flash-in-the-pan fad that would be over in a year or two. It was a strong statement questioning the traditional “service” orientation of library personnel, and one of several important essays asserting that many librarians and library personnel had their own capacious expertise to create digital scholarship (as opposed to being a support pit-stop.) And the very idea of an unfettered and free-ranging space where we might create all sorts of objects felt incredibly important at a time when monographs and essays still loomed incredibly large; when “multimodal scholarship” felt like an exciting, but also hazy, concept.

I am aware, in hindsight, that when I read the original blog post and article, as a PhD student who was relatively new to developing support programs, how little I understood of the article; how abstract a concept “path to production” was, given my lack of experience actually working in libraries or in tech production shops. But the idea of skunkworks and free-ranging labs devoted to innovation – those made sense to me, and felt like something I could be a part of (and I figured I would learn more about the path to production as I went on, if I made it into DH, if I could get a job, what sort I didn’t know, though Bethany Nowviskie’s role at Scholars’ Lab was the clearest model that I had of what sort of job might be possible.). I wanted to create better conditions for digital humanities work to happen, and Bethany seemed to be doing that (and indeed, still is doing amazing work, recently as the Director of the CLIR Digital Libraries Federation, and now as the Dean of Libraries at James Madison University).

So I understand the appeal of skunkworks – but having been in libraries now for coming up on 5 years, I frown inwardly when I hear people wish for them, because what they seem to mean is the ability to experiment without having to worry about the path to production, or the sustainability – wanting those things to be someone else’s problem, because getting tenure for a digital project is hard enough without having to manage the messy stuff behind the shiny front-end interface (This is quite true; it is!). Frequently, when I was a Digital Scholarship Librarian, sustainability and path to production stuff seemed to be my problem, or sometimes to belong to library colleagues who do back-end work, as opposed to public-facing work, and who, while they might be the people who keep the library’s catalog and website functioning, have considerably less power than I have, and more pressure to be “service-oriented” than I ever had/have as a librarian doing liaison/functional-specialist/public-facing work.

Frequently, too, the requirements that go along with maintenance and path to production, are underdiscussed, underplanned, and underrecorded, which means that the time it takes to complete them isn’t factored in to time planning and ends up creating substantial potential for overwork. (Technical debt complicates this even further.) Nor is this as simple as “faculty want librarians to build stuff for them without appreciating the labor required,” because part of the problem with only reading the first part of “Skunks in the Library” is that many libraries seem to have generalized that freedom from constraints is the key – really, the only ingredient in producing innovation, without considering the other sorts of support (access to training, non-insane scope of production) that might be equally necessary. I see this latter wrinkle as not just a problem for DS/DH librarians, but as a challenge that frequently comes up for CLIR and other library-based postdoc positions, and for short-term library residencies focusing on digital stuff. These days I manage two DS librarians, and one of my top concerns as a manager is creating an environment and level of trust and open communication where they can speak openly about any concerns that might arise in terms of the workload that they’re taking on, and the commitments that we’re making as a department.

So I feel a strong need to think about skunkworks (and the influence of Nowviskie’s article) more holistically – to say okay, so how can contemplating what we want, and the challenges involved, help us get to a place where departmental researchers and librarians; or DS/DH librarians and other librarians, are working in solidarity, because it doesn’t feel like that solidarity is something that we genuinely have now.

I also wanted to think about skunkworks because even though 2011 is not that long ago in some ways, in other ways, it feels like a lot has developed in the DH world since then. For example:

I’m not saying that we can’t go further, that we don’t need to be innovative – or that tools and more librarians mean that scholars don’t need skunkworks.

But I am saying that we’ve reached a point where we can think more carefully and critically about innovation; and that as the field continues to develop, the idea of what we need changes. The way that the field has developed changes the work that our communities (whether large or small) need. I believe wholeheartedly that the idea of skunkworks played an important influence on the development of the current field of DH. But I’m less sure that skunkworks are the aspirational goal that we need now.

Some of the tension here almost certainly originates from the fact that “skunkworks,” and the idea of what a DH skunkworks might look like and involve is still hazy – at least, I think it is. I find myself wanting to ask people who invoke skunkworks to tell me more about the specific meaning it holds for them: what are the freedoms that a skunkworks promises that don’t seem possible in the current environment? Why don’t those freedoms seem possible, and what would it take to make them more so?

In asking this question, I want to briefly segue into the history of labor union and civil rights campaigning, and to introduce framing from Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age. McAlevey contrasts three approaches to creating change: advocacy, mobilizing, and organizing.

Advocacy is when elite figures of power (whether politicians, CEOs, or University presidents and administrators) use their influence to create significant change. Mobilizing is characterized by dramatic action, but with more people involved than Advocacy: this might be something that looks like a major victory, a significant shift. Think of it as “We showed up and we took action!” Organizing is less flashy, less likely to result in a succinct and “decisive” victory, but more likely to be influenced and shaped by a wider number of participants, more likely to result in structural changes, and harder to reverse than the victories gained by mobilizing. In No Shortcuts, one of McAlevey’s primary arguments is that in the last several decades, the US has seen a “significant and long-term shift away from deep organizing and toward shallow mobilizing.” The result of this shift has been the widespread decline of unions, and an increase in corporate power and widespread inequality.

I’ve brought in McAlevey’s framework because she’s incredibly smart in thinking about how to effect change. To think about DH project management, and what is needed to support DH projects, is to work towards change from the previous practices around producing scholarship. So I want to ask: which of these three approaches to creating change does creating a skunkworks align with? I’ll give you my answer, and I’m eager to hear yours – I think that it tends to fall somewhere in between advocacy and mobilization.

Part of the appeal of a skunkworks, is that it feels like a solution in itself – like the appealing sort of victory that mobilizing and advocacy achieve – even though Bethany never presented it as anything so simple in her original piece. And I’m invoking McAlevey here because I think that skunkworks can become a tempting-looking shortcut – if we could get a skunkworks, then it feels like in the freedom of that wide-open space, the relationship-building and negotiating and planning and resource-finding would take care of themselves somehow, or would happen more easily and spontaneously than it does within our current and more common set of structures. Sometimes we can ask people in positions of power (like library deans!) to create structures and initiatives (like innovation labs!), and sometimes they have the power to make those happen and fund them. That can be an incredible step forward for a college, or university, or library. But even when we have that sort of success, I think that questions remain – or maybe it’s better to say that brand new questions emerge – about the power and labor dynamics that such a space creates. And they are questions that we cannot rely upon powerful figures to solve, situations where those of us with less power than a library dean still find ourselves in positions where we need to organize around what we need, spend more time talking about it with our communities and colleagues, and work towards taking collective action.

Reconsidering skunkworks - January 14, 2020 - Paige Morgan