Origin Stories

Fred Gibbs

How Did I Not Quit?

Eventually I learned to use to-do lists properly, having figured out that I was much more productive and much less anxious when I used item-level tasks like “add footnote to paragraph 3 on page 24” than “finish book chapter.” It’s all too easy to focus on the ever-looming project deadline rather than the micro-steps that must be taken along the way. Yet I never find these non-technical tasks overtly frustrating, even when they are. It’s simply part of the challenge of a larger project. I never doubt that I can do them, even when I do my best to procrastinate doing them.

Yet working on projects with a significant digital component, I’m often solving stupid problems that are irrelevant to the larger project. While fighting with data format incompatibilities, opaque tools, and incomprehensible documentation, it could hardly be more infuriating that I spend time–as a professional historian–fighting with technical problems that aren’t part of what I should be doing. With this attitude, roughly infinite reasons to quit continually threaten what are otherwise interesting digital history projects.

How do I not quit? Most trivially, I’ve learned that these problems have discrete solutions that are probably easier than I realize, and in any case I simply refuse to admit that I can’t think clearly enough to solve the problem, even when it’s probably true.

More importantly, I don’t quit because I realized that (re)framing my own identity contributed substantially to my tolerance (dare I say enjoyment) of managing my own digital toolbox. As a traditionally trained historian, I instinctively considered techno-tasks as an additional and unwanted burden rather than a legitimate part of the process of doing history. This inadvertent technophobia (despite my interest in actually using technology in innovative ways) silently became part of my default identity. But I like the idea that I’m able to approach historical questions and answers at new scales and with new perspectives. Even if such methods and their challenges remain under-appreciated in the profession, I think it’s important work, and it’s what I want to do.

For me, not quitting in digital humanities work depends crucially on tackling one little task at a time with the attitude that it is important work. To be sure, acquiring tacit knowledge isn’t something that can really be checked off on the to-do list, nor does it (at least right now) make an effective line on the CV. But I find it useful to remind myself that every frustration, stupid problem, and waste of time incrementally expands my ability to work efficiently. And when I finally get something working, it doesn’t matter how long it took or how silly the mistake, the euphoria can be downright addictive. Whether one decides that such work is truly important–we all get into the business for different reasons–but it’s rather astonishing how much a slight change in perspective on professional identity can make can make troubleshooting software version conflicts more like adding a footnote than one might think.