Big-Tent Digital Humanities: a View From the Edge, Part 2

Brian Taylor

September 18, 2011

It's an interesting time to be an observer from the edge of the digital humanities, but I can see that this subfield, much like the rest of the humanities, faces many challenges.

Some are related to the traditions of academic culture—the apparent disinclination of some humanists to work with digital technologies, the academic tendency to value individual achievement over teamwork, and the continuing emphasis on the use of scholarly monographs to certify tenure and promotion. Other challenges seem more structural, such as declining financial support for the humanities in general.

And, of course, the continuing transformation of higher education into a system of casual labor off the tenure track continues to make it much harder for young scholars to get established, particularly if they are working in new, interdisciplinary fields that do not already have dedicated faculty lines.

In Part 1 of this two-part series, I wrote about trends I saw at the international conference of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations, at Stanford University. There were new applications, new scholarly projects, new intellectual communities, new career paths, and undoubtedly a lot of excitement about the accelerating growth of the field.

Now I'd like to turn to the larger problems facing the field, such as the reality that most people don't know all that much about it.

That's true of much of the work done in the humanities. We speak with each other primarily through scholarly channels—which is essential to our work—but that creates a void in public discourse about what we do. How can we justify putting money into seemingly impractical fields when college costs more than an average house?

Even some academics dismiss digital humanities as yet another fad and, therefore, not worthy of investment at this particular moment. But the digital humanities is already well established as a field, with landmark works of scholarship, major journals, conferences, awards, and an increasing number of degree programs, even as the profession keeps asking, à la Crevecoeur, "What is the Digital Humanist, this new academic?"

There are plenty of answers to that question. I recommend reading Matthew G. Kirschenbaum's recent addition to the genre, "What Is Digital Humanities and What's It Doing in English Departments?"

Based on what I saw at the Stanford conference, one answer is that this emerging field is more than the integration of digital technologies with the humanities. Digital humanities is a comprehensive activist project that uses technology to respond to the interconnected cultural and structural problems of academe. From my perspective, as part of a generation that went through graduate school in the 1990s, the "DH" field is a response to a feeling of disenfranchisement and alienation from traditional academic culture in the context of a radically changed system of employment.

Digital humanities cultivates scholarly collaboration as well as individual exploration, technological innovation alongside methodological rigor. It redefines the nature of academic careers while dealing with longstanding disciplinary conversations. And it engages in complex, theoretical heavy lifting while building projects that are often based on the Internet, available to the public, and indisputably useful. (Consider the various projects of the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, and Hamilton College's Digital Humanities Initiative.)

Like the founders and builders of museums, libraries, concert halls, and critical editions in the last century, digital humanists are creating the new infrastructure of our history and culture and changing the nature of education and scholarship. In undergraduate education, for example—where there is so much lamentation about declining standards and irrelevant coursework—the lecture and exam in DH are being succeeded by faculty-student collaborative research toward projects that are not just going to be graded and forgotten. They will be put to use in a global, online community. With leaders who have never known a time when scholarship in the humanities wasn't in crisis, DH is moving us—finally—from endless hand-wringing toward doing something to create positive change throughout academe.

And yet I am uncomfortable with being one of the people beating the digital-humanities drum—and possibly encouraging even more people to consider graduate school or to change fields so they can be part of this "revolution."

Perhaps celebrating the importance of DH may stimulate the creation of some new positions, or at least the flow of more soft-money grants, but I already know some outstanding DH'ers—known leaders in the field—who have yet to find stable academic jobs. At a job slam at the conference at Stanford, announcements of a few new positions were greeted with cheers.

The digital humanities may seem like a lifeboat amid the wreckage of higher education in the humanities, but it's not large enough to hold everyone who's still in the water. And who can say whether any more lifeboats are coming? By now this subfield is almost unavoidable for anyone on the tenure track. But identifying oneself with DH is not a shortcut to stable, traditional employment for anxious graduate students and faculty members.

The Stanford conference marked the launch—with a well-attended panel discussion and much conversation on social media—of the #Alt-Academy project, an open-access collection of essays, dialogues, and personal narratives on the subject of unconventional academic careers for scholars. The collection defines "alternative academics" as people with deep training and experience as humanities scholars who take up nonprofessorial roles in universities and colleges or work in allied cultural institutions such as museums, libraries, academic presses, and other humanities organizations.

Many of the collection's initial 33 contributors are DH'ers. The editor of #Alt-Academy, Bethany Nowviskie, is one of them: a non-tenure-track English Ph.D. serving as director of digital research and scholarship at the University of Virginia Library. Otherwise known as the Scholars' Lab, her program provides support in digital scholarship to faculty members and advanced students. She is also vice president of the Association for Computers and the Humanities and a well-known DH blogger.

Nowviskie's career path is a model for graduates who no longer regard a tenure-track appointment as realistic—in other words, for the overwhelming majority, who don't want to be adjuncts.

"#Alt-Academy is an attempt to fill a gap," Nowviskie said. "Many career-development resources exist for humanities Ph.D.'s who decide to leave the academy, but few focus on the special problems and opportunities facing those who stay—often as second-class citizens." She sees what she calls the "#alt-ac track" as uniquely positioned to test experimental publishing models and new forms of peer review: "The upside of our sometimes tenuous status in higher education is that many of the rules of professional advancement no longer apply to us. We've already stepped off the straight and narrow path to tenure."

According to Lisa Spiro, a contributor to #Alt-Academy who is director of the Nitle Labs, of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, the work of scholars in the digital humanities is "more likely to be practical rather than theoretical, collaborative rather than solo, and focused not so much on writing books and essays as on producing grant applications and building tools, digital collections, Web sites, or training programs."

Speaking on the same panel, Julia Flanders, director of the Women Writers Project at Brown University's Center for Digital Scholarship, observed that tenure-stream faculty members are only 15 percent of the employees at Brown. "The professor as a paradigm," she said, "obscures the ecology of the university."

Alternative academics have more-serendipitous career paths, she said. One thing leads to another. They often hold multiple positions at the same time, and their job transitions are dovetailed rather than clear changes.

Unfortunately, many alternative positions are short-term, part-time, and fragmentary: projects based in centers rather than departments. Once the grant money runs out, digital humanists' jobs often evaporate, and, of course, they face the contumely of the securely tenured. One panelist noted how she had often been treated with disrespect, since staff members lack academic freedom and are often excluded from academic leadership, even if they hold doctorates and have recognized accomplishments as scholars.

It's not an ideal situation, but, for many alternative academics, it's better than joining the growing ranks of adjuncts who aspire to tenure-track positions. Even so, one panelist also observed, the alt-ac path means constant grant writing and job seeking, and no pay for the research and training that needs to be done to advance those efforts.

In other words, "Alt-ac can mean alt-workaholic."

"Alt-ac is fine," said one audience member, "but there are a lot of reasons to hold out for a tenure-track position."

As I see it, we need to find new ways to be humanists, while recognizing that alternative academic careers must coincide with substantial resistance to the deprofessonalization and adjunctification of the humanities.

Next year's digital-humanities conference will be held in Hamburg, Germany. In 2013, the location is Lincoln, Neb.

William Pannapacker is an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Mich. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employers.