Planning your DH Institute: What and Why

January 12, 2021
Flamingoes, study folder for the book Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom by Abbott Handerson Thayer.
Photo caption

Flamingoes, study folder for the book Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom by Abbott Handerson Thayer.

This is the first of three posts (post 2  | post 3 ) written to help you conceptualize and describe your Institute for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities. Note: This was originally published in 2020. It has been updated for the 2021 application cycle.


The concept behind the Institutes for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities (IATDH) program is simple.


These awards provide funds for digital humanists of all kinds to bring people together with the goal of learning about advanced methodological or conceptual approaches to DH, and building community among practitioners with shared interests.

Defining the format for an IATDH is up to you.

An IATDH might be organized around a disciplinary theme (like archaeology), a technical problem (like GIS), or a methodological challenge (like Indigenous DH). It might be held as a residential three-week summer institute, a series of three-day workshops, or a hybrid multi-year program with in-person and virtual components. It might be taught or attended by advanced graduate students, faculty members, librarians, technical experts, or other humanities professionals.

Our goal with these blog posts, then, is not to tell you how to organize your IATDH. Instead, we want to encourage you to consider proposing an IATDH, and to provide insight into what happens to proposals as they go through the review process. We want to draw your attention to how the review criteria connect to your proposal, and to patterns that we have observed after reading hundreds of pages of aggregated peer review feedback.

With this first post, we’ll be focusing on the Significance and the Curriculum and Work Plan sections of the grant proposal, and talking about them in terms of the following review criteria:

  • The intellectual significance of the professional development opportunity for research and teaching in the humanities.
  • The quality of the conception, definition, organization, and description of the program and the applicant’s clarity of expression.
  • The soundness of the program’s methodology and work plan, as well as the appropriateness of the digital technology being studied at the institute.
  • the regional or national reach of the program, as demonstrated by the likely impact upon the participants, and the likely broader impact of the institute’s curriculum and other program-related products.

You can find a full explanation of the review criteria in the Notice of Funding Opportunity.


The purpose of this section is to demonstrate the project’s intellectual significance for the humanities.

To consider how this is done, let’s look at an example from the first section of the application for Early Modern Digital Agendas, a 2013 IATDH from the Folger Shakespeare Library:

Recent debates concerning Digital Humanities (DH) have raised major methodological and epistemological issues at the core of DH approaches to literature. Yet most scholars of early modern literature recognize that they cannot return to a point before digital technologies; they need to acquire digital literacy.

What makes this an effective statement of intellectual significance for the humanities?

It identifies a need (digital literacy) within a humanities-specific discipline (early modern literature), and shows how the institute will address that need.

Emphasizing the humanities significance is particularly important for programs that focus on a technical area, like cartography, text encoding, or big data analysis. Readers want to know that you will be pushing the humanities forward with your institute.

If a proposal is too focused on skill building, absent a clear sense of its applicability to the questions and concerns of humanities scholars and professionals, reviewers may mark it down.

Other areas that reviewers highlight when evaluating the significance of a program include: the relevance of the topic for the intended audience, the need for the program given the current landscape of professional development opportunities, and programmatic attention to long-term impact. Here’s how the Early Modern Digital Agendas proposal addressed those topics:

Early Modern Digital Agendas seeks to create a forum in which participants can historicize, theorize, and critically evaluate current and future digital tools and approaches in early modern studies, with discussion growing out of, and feeding back into, their own projects. As part of a culminating digital footprint, the participants will produce a DH resources hub for early modernists.

In addition to humanities significance, reviewers look for both quality and clarity of expression when reviewing the significance section, which should be accessible to an audience of non-expert readers: reviewers express concern if the language seems overly technical or esoteric.

At the same time, reviewers express concern when they feel like a project has not been fully conceptualized. This may occur when the relationship between the goals of the institute and the curriculum has not been clearly articulated, or when reviewers are not convinced that the structure of the institute best suited to accomplish the program’s goals.

Reviewers want to see consistency among the needs being met, the community being served, and the pedagogical approach being taken.

Curriculum and Work Plan

Return applicants should take note that this section now encompasses what was formerly two sections: the "curriculum" and "work plan." New for 2021, your narrative description will be supplemented by a required detailed work plan and schedule, to be attached separately in Attachment 3: Work plan and course outline. Note that the comments here refer specifically to the narrative section, but may also apply to Attachment 3.

Also new to this section for 2021 is a request for information about planning for changes in your institute once the project is underway.  As we have all learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, you must have a Plan B and we want to you to describe your strategies in your application. So you will need to identify any risks that may occur, such as staff attrition and travel restrictions, and note how they might adversely affect the overall schedule. For example, could you move from an in-person to an online institute to mitigate these risks?


Applicants may take a number of different approaches to describing their curriculum in the narrative section.

For example, Early Modern Digital Agendas offered a day-by-day overview of the planned institute, including the topics of study and names of guest speakers.

In contrast, in the application for the Digital Methods for Military History, a 2020-2021 institute, the proposers provided a brief overview of the general organizational structure, and included a detailed schedule as an appendix.

In other cases, we have seen the "curriculum" used to describe a pedagogical philosophy or approach.

Because the "curriculum" section is also where the institute’s organizational structure is described, reviewers look here for an explanation of why you decided to hold, say, a one-week residential institute, or a multi-year virtual program. While there are many, many ways to organize an institute, the key is communicating how your decisions were made, and how they will help participants to achieve the institute’s goals.

For example, in the case of one successful proposal, a reviewer remarked that the institute was well thought out and attentive to best practices in digital pedagogy. In another case, a reviewer lauded the proposal’s serious attention to the specific pedagogical needs of the intended participant group.

Reviewers express concern when they feel that the way the institute will be carried out is unclear, and they sometimes have questions about specific features, like why a lecture was offered instead of a hands-on session, or whether there’s enough time scheduled for community development or creative experimentation.

(Pro tip: when we get feedback from program organizers at the end of an institute, they also often express regret that they didn’t schedule more time for community development and creative experimentation.)

Reviewers will also identify gaps in a curriculum; for example, reviewers often express concern when an institute offers technical skills without building in time to focus on the ethical challenges of a particular tool or approach.

But without question, the most common concern that reviewers express is when a curriculum appears to be overloaded. Reviewers will take note if the curriculum seems to be covering too many topics, or if the schedule looks overly busy.

The answer here, as is so often the case, is to develop focused, achievable plans. When it comes to teaching, less is almost always more!

Work Plan

The "work plan" is where you describe the steps involved in organizing and running your institute. Based on feedback from past IATDH organizers, we can say that these are labor-intensive programs that require careful planning and implementation.

Some aspects of the work plan that were included in the successful 2019 Further Expanding Communities of Practice proposal, for example, include hiring an institute coordinator, recruiting participants, arranging travel, scheduling curriculum planning meetings, arranging institute logistics, and scheduling post-institute mentorship and support.

Though this section isn’t lengthy, note the level of detail here: one common concern raised by reviewers is that a work plan is “vague” or “murky.” When work plans are well-received, they are most often lauded for their “specificity.”

Another concern that reviewers consistently raise has to do with labor. They want to be sure that all the work can get done, and that compensation is appropriate to the amount of time required for the program. It can be helpful to name the individuals who will be responsible for various tasks in the work plan (and make sure they also appear in the budget justification). 

Ultimately, when it comes to the project narrative, reviewers are looking for evidence of a specific and clearly-defined vision. In the next post, we’ll talk about what’s involved in showing that you’ve done the planning necessary to make your vision a reality.