By Nicholas Bauch
The geographer Nicholas Bauch spent 2013-2015 as a postdoctoral scholar at the Center developing an online, interactive revival of a turn-of-the-century photographic slideshow of the Grand Canyon. His project has been acquired by Stanford University Press, and will become its first digital-only publication.
As I end my term as a postdoctoral scholar at the Bill Lane Center for the American West, already I can look back and recognize these two years as a period of tremendous professional and personal development. For those of us in the business of writing, thinking, reading, collaborating, and experimenting, there do not exist gifts of higher value than time and trust. Having been the recipient of these two irreplaceable gifts from the Center, I have built new ways of practicing the craft of knowledge production, certainly within my own discipline of geography, but also – relatedly – in the creative act of writing.
I started at the Center with a vision to make a digital scholarly publication based on a single historical document: the 1905 photographic slideshow of the Grand Canyon produced and sold by a career photographer named Henry Peabody. By the time I arrived in autumn 2013, the Center had already established a tradition of cutting-edge digital scholarship, led by the efforts of creative director Geoff McGhee, former postdoc Maria Santos, former Dee fellows Andy Robichaud and Cameron Blevins, and visiting graduate student Thomas Favre-Bulle, among others. As part of this cohort, I noticed that all of our work in digital media occupied an uneasy position with respect to the rigors of peer review and academic publishing. We were all doing high-quality work, yet blatantly missing was a pathway to the same accreditation achievable in traditional print media.
As my Grand Canyon project – called Enchanting the Desert – grew, the editors at Stanford University Press took notice, and invited me to submit a prospectus for the first born-digital monograph in their new digital scholarship publishing initiative. None of us knew exactly how to proceed; in fact, the template they first sent to me for the prospectus was taken nearly verbatim from their book proposal template. I happily spent an enormous amount of intellectual energy fitting the needs of a digital scholar into the norms of the publishing industry, forging a new template for how digital scholars and publishers can communicate standards and best practices with one another.
The user interface of Enchanting the Desert
(Stanford University Press)
With digital media, for example, new forms of narrative – in this case spatial narrative – became imminently possible. It became clear that anonymous peer reviewers for the historical content of the work would be necessary, as expected. But rather unexpectedly, it also became clear that reviewers for the design of the user interface would be necessary since the content of the project does not unfold linearly. From this I have found that designing for navigation and access (a reader cannot simply flip through the pages of a digital project like she can a book) is one of the major new realms traditional publishing houses will need to enter as born-digital scholarship continues to grow.
With a publication date now within sight (planned for 2016), my work at the Center has put me in a position to be a leader in the methods of the digital humanities as well as in the subject of cultural geography. These are very practical types of professional coups, as my knowledge about the history of tourism and photographic vision at the Grand Canyon has increased immeasurably alongside my technical skills in digital publishing – including things like website design, web archiving, cartographic design, and the application of media theory. Enchanting the Desert has given me the opportunity to practice all of these in one big cauldron, stirring the elements together to make a unique geographical vision of, as the subtitle to the project suggests, “a pattern language for the production of visual space at the Grand Canyon.”
Despite all these invaluable achievements, the skill I can say that I have sharpened the most as a scholar – and as a person – during my time at the Center has been writing. Although I came to the Center with a Ph.D. and a considerable amount of experience in academia, I still felt something of a cold distance between the topics I thought about and what I read in my community of scholarship. That is, I always felt like I was on the outside looking in at geography books and journal articles, understanding and respecting what I read, but not knowing how exactly to do it myself. I always found myself wondering, “How do people write these documents?”
Part of my experience in academia before coming to the Center included two years as a teaching fellow in Stanford’s Introduction to Humanities program, a series of writing-intensive courses for first-year undergraduates. There I thought a lot about writing, witnessed the writing process for hundreds of students, and advised those hundreds of students on how to make their writing clearer and more engaging. But it was not until these past two years at the Center that I can proudly say that above all I now consider myself more than a good writer, or a writing instructor, but a professional writer.
With the time and trust granted to me by the Bill Lane Center, I have developed a style particular to the aims of my research visions, and have, with the countless informal conversations in the Center’s halls, consciously trained myself how to express all those wordless ideas, thoughts, feelings, and intuitions that constantly flood our minds. I have grown to love the process of finding the right word, to love those moments sitting in front of a blank page not knowing what exactly will emerge, and to love spending far too long perfecting a single sentence. I am better than I ever have been at slowing down, capturing, and describing the mechanics of the mind, something that I will cherish and continue to improve upon for the rest of my life.
Enchanting the Desert is forthcoming from the Stanford University Press.