[Humanist] 24.288 designing an academic DH department

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Aug 27 02:47:13 CEST 2010

                    Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 288.
        Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                 Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

Date: Wed, 25 Aug 2010 16:21:13 -0600
From: Darren James Harkness <webmaster at staticred.net>
Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.283 designing an academic DH department

I can speak to the professional side on behalf of my own position as a  web
developer and project manager for the Centre for Research at  Athabasca

We support about a half-dozen active researchers at any given time in 
DH-like activities, installing software, doing preliminary research, and 
doing software modification and customization.  Although we do rely in 
small part on our greater IT infrastructure to do our work, we get by  with
one developer and one systems administrator. I would say that,  depending on
the scope of work being engaged in by faculty (are we  creating a new TaPor,
or just investigating the pedagogical benefits of  blogging software?) you
could comfortably have a ratio of 1 developer  for 6-10 active faculty, and
one systems administrator for 3-5  developers.  In addition, although we
don't have the resources for them,  I would recommend 1 QA/Tester for every
3-5 developers as well.  In  addition, the department would benefit from a
project manager /  coordinator who had development experience to act as a
front line  between the academic and professional staff, as there can often
be  cultural translation issues between those two layers.  Ideally, this 
would be a person who has experience in both a professional and academic 

For an active DH department of 12-24 scholars, I would likely recommend  a
minimum of two developers, ideally split between highly structured 
languages such as Java and Python and less structured languages like PHP 
and perl as a way to cover most of your faculty's needs.  I would likely 
recruit a senior Java developer and a junior web developer with good 
research skills.  

As a final note on staffing, I would mention that personality and fit  are
exceptionally important when hiring for an academic environment.   It's
important to recruit professional staff that have an active  interest in,
and can adapt easily to, the pace of working in an academic  environment. 
For myself, I want to recruit staff that will push our  institutional
boundaries, while understanding and respecting the general  institutional
resistance to change.  It's a bit of a balancing act, but  one that pays
off.  Ideally, I would look to recruit from outside the  institution as one
way of accomplishing this. 

As for equipment, we've made great use at AU - as have others - of 
virtualization to provide server environments.  One physical server, 
properly resourced and virtualized, can provide 5-10 virtual server 
environments.  For most things, a virtual environment is virtually (ha) 
indistinguishable from a bare metal server (it does, however, start to  show
its limitations when faced with particularly heavy tasks, such as 
continuous video encoding or other tasks that require constant CPU /  memory
/ disk usage). I'd also recommend a minimum of two physical  servers to
provide some redundancy for hardware failure and a third  server for backup
purposes.  I would work with your school's CS / IT  department to house
these, and provide systems administration support,  rather than hosting them
in-department, as a way of managing ongoing  maintenance costs. You will
also want to invest in high end workstations  for your professional staff,
especially developers, as a way of  futureproofing your department for the
next 3-5 years.  

Ideally, you could do all of this through an initial 2-3 year grant, 
attached to a wildly successful project that would guarantee  institutional
acceptance and inclusion into their regular operation  budget.

One can dream. 

--Darren James Harkness
webmaster at staticred.net

"Ever Tried? Ever Failed? No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail  Better."  
Samuel Beckett.

More information about the Humanist mailing list