• April 19, 2014

'No DH, No Interview'

An Academic in American Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

I tweeted that proposition, "No DH, no interview," during the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, at the University of Victoria, in June, and I was surprised by the response, which I'll get to shortly.

It was my second visit to the summer institute; the last time was in 2008, when I described it as "Summer Camp for Digital Humanists." Mainly it's a chance for graduate students and faculty members to come together for a week of training, project-building, and socializing.

Two things struck me as different after four years away: The tame rabbits that used to graze all over the Victoria campus are gone ("vacuumed up and shipped to Texas," I was told). And the number of participants has more than tripled: from 125 to 423, with even more expected next year. The institute now has about 1,800 alumni, and more than half of them return year after year, taking progressively advanced courses in subjects such as digital pedagogy, geographic-information systems, and large-project management. The summer institute is part of a growing network of training programs that includes Digital.Humanities@Oxford Summer School, the Culture & Technology European Summer School in Digital Humanities, and the new Digital Humanities Winter Institute. (A detailed report on this year's summer institute at the Victoria campus can be found here.)

I asked Ray Siemens, director of the Digital Humanities Summer Institute since its creation, in 2001 (when you could fit the whole event into an ordinary classroom), what he thought was driving the surge in demand. He attributed it to the attractiveness and value of the digital humanities as a set of scholarly practices combined with a strong spirit of community.

As one first-time participant, Julia Randel, observed: "I am alternately overwhelmed and inspired by the huge range of backgrounds people are bringing, the types of projects they are working on, and the possibilities that are out there. I'll talk to one person (or go to a session on text encoding) and think, 'Oh, no, I don't belong here!' But then I talk to someone else and find out they are doing something very much like what I want to do, and they are incredibly generous with their help and ideas."

I spent my week there struggling to learn a difficult type of GIS software in a quest to create a map of the Lake District as explored by Wordsworth and Coleridge. Doing so seemed as demanding and ad hoc as bringing the Apollo 13 to splashdown. I relearned at midcareer what it is like to be a student: confused, dependent, expecting to fail, and fighting off the urge to drop out, leave the room, and lie on the grass in despair. When I confessed the problem on Facebook, Bethany Nowviskie, director of the Scholars' Lab at the University of Virginia, immediately sent me a link to a new GIS application, along with an introduction to a colleague at the summer institute who could show me how to use it that day.

I spoke with several graduate students during the week about their interest in the field: how they got into it and began their first projects. Alex Galarza, a Fulbright scholar and fellow at Michigan State University's Matrix Center, said, "The culture of collaboration and sharing I found in the DH community spurred me to create the Football Scholars Forum, a sort of scholarly think tank that meets online to discuss monographs, articles, films, and pedagogy."

In her plenary lecture, Laura Mandell, director of the Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media, and Culture at Texas A&M University, made a compelling case for the transformative power of the work being done at events like the institute. She quoted Julia Flanders (director of the Women Writer's Project at Brown University), "We don't want to save the humanities as they are constructed, do we?"

Mandell said DH is partly a turn against the dominance of critical theory, which she called "a PR failure and an intellectual failure: an excessive and unexamined lock-step discipline." DH provides a rigorous alternative to the seemingly exhausted scholarly approaches of the previous generation. Moreover, DH is a culture of building projects that serve a wide audience rather than—to paraphrase Mandell—engage in knee-jerk denunciations of capitalism while depending on its dwindling largess for our employment.

The digital humanities is not on a mission to assimilate everyone, even though I am sure most DH'ers want others to recognize what they do (especially for tenure and promotion). Lots of graduate students and faculty members are getting drawn into the field because they see its value and enjoy being part of a community of practitioners. But there are also more and more people who see DH as a means of coping with the lack of tenure-track positions and a means of increasing their options for alternative academic positions. DH offers transferable skills that can land them in administration, coding, grant writing, and project management if they are unable to find permanent academic posts.

As Mandell observed, cuts are coming in everywhere in the humanities, and money is being "strategically reallocated," but DH is seen as a good bet for continuing investment. So more and more people are seeking to be identified with it. According to one graduate I spoke with, who asked not to be named, "Many graduate students view the field as a boon in a worsening job market. The likelihood of becoming contingent faculty is high for recent Ph.D.'s, and anything that presents an edge in the search for more-secure employment seems like a good idea."

Karen Kelsky, who runs her own business as an academic career counselor, said that "any candidate who can add an expertise in DH to their conventional profile is going to be noticed. Departments realize they need to include some DH expertise, but most senior scholars have no time or inclination to achieve that, and are counting on 'hip new hires' to carry the flag." But she warns candidates not to jettison traditional expertise for a primary specialization in digital humanities if they are looking for work as a professor.

While it would be foolhardy to rush into DH at the expense of traditional disciplinary expertise, I also suspect—based on accumulating anecdotal evidence—that we are about to see an increase in demand for DH'ers at institutions that have not previously looked for them. Most likely, I think we are going to see an increase in requests for digital humanities as a secondary specialization. Not knowing anything about the field could become a disadvantage on the market.

That possibility is what prompted me to tweet, "No DH, no interview."

"This is a development guaranteed to scare the bejeezus out of any number of job applicants," wrote Collin Gifford Brooke, an associate professor of rhetoric and writing at Syracuse University, on his blog." Mark Sample, an associate professor of English at George Mason University, tweeted that such a scenario would be bad for DH and for traditional academe. It would bring people into the field who have no genuine interest in it, he said. "There are many terrific scholars who don't do DH. Why force them?" Nowviskie observed that it was "a recipe for making job candidates feel as if they must simply tack on a little DH at the end." The result would be a lot of badly conceptualized projects designed to enhance one's marketability rather than to make a real scholarly contribution.

That sounded awfully familiar to me, since I was a graduate student in the 90s, when every project, it seemed, had to be primarily about some aspect of Theory. Ritualized denunciations of scholarly traditionalists and requiring everyone to do DH—expecting a DH chapter in every dissertation, for example, and expecting everyone to talk about technology using the latest catchphrases—seems more likely to produce backlash than positive engagement.

As Stephen Ramsay, among others, has argued, the real DH'ers are going to have projects that they demonstrate and justify not for the sake of being trendy, but because the project allows them to ask new questions, collaborate more effectively, and reach new audiences. They also should be able to discuss, in detail, the reasons for their technological choices: Why do they use one application and not another?

For example, Galarza, the Fulbright scholar and creator of the Football Scholars Forum, said: "GIS software, online repositories, and presenting historical arguments in an online setting are helping me answer my research questions and share my analysis with an academic and popular audience. Open-source software produced at digital-humanities centers, such as Zotero and Kora, have been crucial in organizing my scholarship and disseminating it with scholars across the world."

On the other side of the hiring table, if your department is thinking that it can become involved in digital humanities by, say, hiring a medievalist who also knows something about Twitter and Omeka, think again. One person cannot cover the entire, rapidly changing landscape of DH any more than one person could cover all of Theory. You can't just create an "Introduction to DH" course and expect it to change much if students are still writing traditional papers in every other class. DH is not a separate subdiscipline; it doesn't reside in a single department; and new assistant professors are in no position to make the kind of changes that are needed.

So if your institution wants to participate in the DH transformation that's already taking place at some major universities, then you need a more comprehensive plan: strategic hires across departments and divisions, support for faculty development, and revisions of tenure-and-promotion guidelines.

Such planning needs to extend to the staff as well. One goal of DH is to foster greater collaboration among technologists, librarians, and fund raisers—the wide range of alternative academics. They need to be as much a part of the plan as faculty are. If an institution is unwilling to take those kinds of steps, then hiring one or two DH'ers, while arguably a step in the right direction, isn't going to produce much change.

So even though I've been excited about the digital humanities since my first visit to the summer institute, I want to urge job candidates: Don't become a DH'er out of fear that you won't get a position if you don't. You may not get a job if you do. There are already many outstanding people in the field, with publications and good postdocs, who are not permanently employed, and the rapidly growing number of DH'ers seems likely to exceed the number of available positions in the foreseeable future.

Like any other field in the humanities, participating in the digital humanities has to be its own reward.

William Pannapacker is an associate professor of English at Hope College. Many of his previous columns were published under a pseudonym, Thomas H. Benton. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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