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A Day in the Life of a Digital Humanities Postdoc

Computer Technology Fortune[This is a guest post by Adrianne Wadewitz, a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Digital Learning + Research at Occidental College. You can find her online here and follow her on Twitter at @wadewitz.--@jbj]

Here are some representative highlights from a recent Monday’s schedule:

Monday, October 1

  • Plan and teach class on Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
  • Work on article about teaching with Wikipedia
  • Present an hour-long demonstration of Eighteenth-Century Collections Online to an upper-division English class based on their course materials
  • Train undergraduates to use Omeka so they can support faculty and students using it in a variety of courses

This is a typical day for me and illustrates why I relish my job as a digital humanities postdoc at Occidental College. It offers everything I want in a digital humanities position: time for research, flexibility to experiment with my teaching, and the opportunity to spread the word about how technology can invigorate teaching and revolutionize research in the humanities. Postdocs are relatively rare in the humanities compared to the sciences, and postdocs at liberal arts colleges are even rarer. Because digital humanities postdocs at liberal arts institutions are so new, they pose unique opportunities and challenges that highlight important questions about the structure of the academy. In this post, I will discuss how my liminality allows me a degree of freedom unusual even for academia, but also privileges skills that I teach myself rather than the ones I learned in graduate school.

As a postdoc in a Center for Digital Learning + Research, I have access to many parts of the college, the freedom to pursue unconventional research methods and pedagogy, and the luxury to develop my own projects; however, I was not equipped for budgetary meetings, redesigning classroom spaces, and speaking to faculty across the disciplines. The traditional training for an English PhD does not include advice for these situations. Like much in the digital humanities, my position requires me to be an autodidact – it is the kind of position for people who like daily challenges, love learning new skills quickly, and thrive on novelty. Being able to learn fast is essential in a non-traditional postdoc. Much of what I was trained to do in graduate school – research in a targeted area, participate in scholarly discussions, and craft carefully written work – prepared me to speak to specialists inside my field, not to scholars, librarians, and administrators about a wide range of issues. One day I need to be able to help a math professor integrate problem-solving software into his calculus class, the next I need to be thinking about how the renovations to a building on campus will allow professors to use more data visualization software, and the following I need to be discussing the open access movement and its relationship to the library budget.

I am both a faculty member, because I teach a freshman writing seminar, and an administrator, because I assist faculty. This dual role can be challenging, both for me and for my colleagues. Am I someone that faculty come to for technology help, like IT support, or am I a peer, like a junior faculty member? So, for example, when I help faculty members develop new and innovative assignments, do they see me as “tech help” or as someone who can help them rethink their pedagogy? How are these separated when you are teaching someone a new technology? Also, since I am not in a department, how do I work both within my own discipline and relate to my colleagues here in that discipline and how do I work across the disciplines, something highly valued at a liberal arts college? Finally, how do I prioritize this kind of broad, interdisciplinary work when I know that I will have to go out on the job market again, a job market that often values highly specialized work?

While I have all of these questions, my liminal position can be very liberating. My class, for example, is not bound by disciplinary constraints precisely because the college views my position as one that encourages pedagogical experimentation. Currently, the course includes texts, photos, radio broadcasts, and internet sites; the range of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction is prodigious. I am not required to cover any particularly period or genre, as I might be in an English department, so I am free to explore questions about how media shape our understanding of the world. I can also see if it works to have my students record modern ballads or use tumblr to create photo essays.

Showing faculty and students the benefits of databases like ECCO or content-management system/exhibition software like Omeka is perhaps the part of my job that I enjoy the most. These new tools enable completely new forms of scholarship and teaching and sitting down with faculty to explore the possibilities for their own work and teaching is exhilarating. In the case of Omeka, I had some familiarity with the software, but before the training workshop, I spent a weekend becoming more conversant with it and two hours creating a sample site for the students to play around with. As those of us who work in the digital humanities know, much time is spent learning new software quickly – and much of that learning occurs simply through doing and tinkering. In creating a sample site, it was easy for me to create a presentation about how to use Omeka.

Negotiating the role between “IT help” and “digital humanities postdoc” is perhaps the most difficult. I adore introducing people to new technology, because I love seeing their excitement and sense of discovery, however they also need to learn how to use it on their own – they need to learn how to explore Omeka like I did. This is perhaps one of the hardest problems to solve – and one that is essential to solve at a liberal arts college where there is not a large IT help department dedicated to assisting every professor and student as there would be at a research university. Kind, personalized service is highly valued at liberal arts institutions, and it sets them apart from the sometimes-faceless research universities. However, digital humanities postdocs cannot be IT help – they have to be something more. Creating a space in which faculty see us as peers and who help them reimagine their scholarly lives with new digital tools is essential.

It seems to me that the skills I am developing should be valuable on the academic job market, but they do not necessarily fit neatly into the categories in a traditional job ad. In filling a position like this, should I focus on what makes it unique and challenging or should I focus on publishing research in a specialized field? Time is finite and I must prioritize. The job market clearly pushes me toward publication but the excitement and dynamic projects of this kind of postdoc pushes me into engagement outside the traditional realms of scholarship. The question is how the academy is going to respond to a new kind of digital humanities postdoc.

Next in the series: What does the digital humanities look like at a small, selective liberal arts college? What kinds of opportunities can a digital humanities center at a liberal arts college offer faculty and students? What kinds of large and small projects can such a center undertake? What models can it draw on and offer? What does a liberal arts version of MITH or CHNM look like?

Photo “Computer Technology Fortune” by Flickr user deanj / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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