Do 'the Risky Thing' in Digital Humanities

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

September 25, 2011

Last spring, I gave a talk on the digital future of scholarly publishing at the humanities center of a large research university. The crowd was small but engaged, and the discussion afterward was challenging and thoughtful. Near the end, however, a young woman asked a question that threw me for a second. "I'm a grad student and starting my dissertation," she said, "and while I want to do a digital project that would make my argument in an innovative form, I know the safe thing to do is to be conservative, to write something traditional and leave experimentation for later. What would you advise?"

"Do the risky thing," I blurted, before my scruples intervened in the split second between phrases. My concerns went like this: I'm not her dissertation director; I don't want to create conflict in her progress toward her degree; I don't want to set up unreasonable expectations about what her department will actually support. And so my immediate qualification: "Make sure that someone's got your back, but do the risky thing."

New forms of digital scholarship have received a great deal of attention across the humanities in the last few years, and from the coverage—in The Chronicle, The New York Times, and elsewhere—you would think the work had become prominent enough that it would no longer be necessary for a junior scholar to ask about the need to defend it. Digital humanities seem to have reached a critical mass of acceptance within academe, helped in no small part by groups like the Modern Language Association, whose past president, Sidonie Smith, is leading an investigation of future forms of the dissertation, and whose Committee on Information Technology is working on issues surrounding the review of digital scholarship for tenure and promotion. Yet such working groups are still working for a reason.

The case for why a graduate student should take a chance on an innovative project—a dissertation in film studies that builds its argument in both video and text form, for instance, or a project that uses geospatial technologies to map literary movements—is pretty straightforward: Real innovation requires risk. Writing a standard dissertation that meets everyone's expectations for what a dissertation should look like, how it should argue, and what it should say is the safe path to a completed degree. But having taken that path—the path to a book—the candidate is likely to find herself on the job market with dozens of other Ph.D. holders with prospective books. Getting her work out of the pile is helped enormously by having done something more than what was expected. That is not to push experimentation for experimentation's sake, but it is to say that reining in a project a graduate student really wants to do to conform with a traditional structure is counterproductive, deflating both the student's passion and the thing that makes her work distinctive.

The most important part of my response, however, was less that this particular student take a chance than it was the implied exhortation to her adviser: You must support her in doing the risky thing. Insist that she defend her experimental work, and then, in turn, defend her choice to anyone who doesn't understand her deviation from the road ordinarily traveled. As mentors to younger scholars, it is our responsibility to ensure that they can do the risky thing, knowing that someone's got their back.

I find myself increasingly concerned about the relationship between mentoring junior scholars and their ability to take risks, in no small part because of the number of searches that have been conducted in the last couple of years for beginning assistant professors in the digital humanities. I'm thrilled that those positions exist. It's great to see the field grow, and I know that the dynamic junior scholars who have been hired will energize their departments. But I have wondered, and often, what provisions are being made for supporting those new faculty members, particularly on campuses where the positions represent a first foray into the digital humanities.

Scholars doing digital work require kinds of support that many more traditionally oriented humanists do not: access to technical resources for both their teaching and scholarship, as well as help maintaining those resources. They need access to collaborators—to other scholars in the humanities and to a range of developers, designers, project managers, and librarians—to produce and preserve their projects. How many programs hiring young digital humanists are prepared to provide them with those resources?

Even more important, will such programs be able to provide the mentoring I've mentioned—helping the new hire's senior colleagues understand the innovative modes in which the junior scholar is working? It's mentoring up rather than down.

That kind of mentoring is our duty, but one that too few of us are fulfilling. Too many young digital humanists find themselves cautioned away from the very work that got them hired by well-meaning senior colleagues, who now tell them that wacky digital projects are fine on the side, or once the work necessary for tenure is complete.

In giving that advice, we run the risk of breaking the innovative spirit that we've hoped to bring to our departments. And where that spirit isn't broken, untenured digital scholars run the risk of burnout from having to produce twice as much—traditional scholarship and digital projects—as their counterparts do.

Those are the wrong risks for us to ask them to take. My advice to that graduate student stands: Junior scholars with truly innovative projects need to do the risky thing. But they need to know that someone's got their backs, and that their senior colleagues will learn to evaluate new kinds of work on its own merits and will insist upon the value of such innovation for the field and for the institution.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, on leave as a professor of media studies at Pomona College, is serving as director of scholarly communication at the Modern Language Association. She is a contributor to The Chronicle's ProfHacker blog.