Sunday, September 25, 2011

It's not "the job market"; it's the profession (and it's your problem too)

I enjoyed Kathleen Fitzpatrick's recent piece in the Chronicle* on risk-taking and the responsibility of mentors to back up those junior scholars who are doing nontraditional work. The piece's key insight is that it's one thing to urge people to "innovate" and quite another to create the institutional frameworks that make innovation not only possible but consequential.**

Kathleen's observation comports with some ideas that have been floating around in my head lately, especially around "digital humanities." I and my Fox Center colleague Bart Brinkman were recently called upon to define digital humanities for the other fellows in residence, and in the process of talking it over with Bart, and during the discussion at the CHI, I've come to realize that I have some real pet peeves around the notion of the "job market" that come into relief specifically around the field of digital humanities.

It boils down to this: peeps, we're all connected.

The recent rise to prominence of digital humanities is indistinguishable from its new importance in "the job market" (I insist on those scare quotes); after all, digital humanities and its predecessor, humanities computing, have been active fields for decades. What's happening now is that they are institutionalizing in new ways. So when we talk about "digital humanities and the 'job market,'" we are not just talking about a young scholar's problem (or opportunity, depending on how you see it). We are talking about a shift in the institutional structures of the profession. And, senior scholars, this is not something that is happening to you. You are, after all, the ones on the hiring and t&p committees. It is a thing you are making—through choices that you make, and through choices that you decline to make.

There's something a little strange about the way that digital humanities gets promoted from the top down; it gets a lot of buzz in the New York Times; it's well known as dean-candy and so gets tacked onto requests for hires; digital humanities grant money seems to pour in (thanks, NEH!) even as philosophy departments across the country are getting shut down; university libraries start up initiatives to promote digital humanities among their faculty. I am waiting for the day when administrators and librarians descend upon the natural sciences faculty to promote history of science. No, I really am.

So it seems quite natural that there should be wariness and resistance to the growing presence of digital humanities. Perhaps there is some bitterness that you might get your new Americanist only on condition that her work involves a Google Maps mashup, because it was easy to persuade people that your department needed a new "digital humanist," whatever the hell that is, and it was not easy to persuade people that you needed somebody to teach Faulkner.

The situation is not improved by the confrontational attitudes of certain factions of the digital humanities establishment (such as it is), which are occasionally prone to snotty comments about how innovative DH is and how tired and intellectually bankrupt everybody else's work is. (Not so often, I find—but even a little is enough to be a problem.) Under those circumstances, DH seems clubby and not liberating; not a way of advocating the humanities but an attack on it, and specifically on the worth of that Faulkner seminar that you teach, and that non-digital research that you do. Why, an established scholar might reasonably ask, should I even deal with this "digital humanities" nonsense? Shouldn't I just keep teaching my Faulkner seminar, because somebody ought to do it, for Christ's sake?

Well, whatever else DH is, it is highly political, and it has political consequences. So, in short, no.

I'm persuaded that the widespread appeal of DH has much to do with the leveling fantasy it offers, a fantasy of meritocracy that is increasingly belied elsewhere in the professional humanities. As Tom Scheinfeldt points out in his useful "Stuff Digital Humanists Like,"
Innovation in digital humanities frequently comes from the edges of the scholarly community rather than from its center—small institutions and even individual actors with few resources are able to make important innovations. Institutions like George Mason, the University of Mary Washington, and CUNY and their staff members play totally out-sized roles in digital humanities when compared to their roles in higher ed more generally, and the community of digital humanities makes room for and values these contributions from the nodes.
This is true. Those involved in digital humanities have also seen the ways that THATCamps, blogs, and Twitter allow junior scholars and scholars at non-R1 institutions to cut geodesics across the profession, allowing them to spread their ideas, collaborate, and achieve a certain prominence that would have been impossible through traditional channels. I'm convinced that real possibilities lie here.

And as traditional scholarly publishing becomes more and more constricted and humanities department budgets are slashed, the fiction of academic meritocracy becomes harder and harder to sustain. Perhaps on the web, we think, through lean DIY publishing and postprint review, meritocracy (or its semblance) can return to the academy. It seems at once a way forward and a way to return to a (fabled) time when people cared about scholarship for the sake of scholarship—not because they needed X number of well-placed articles or a line on the cv or a connection at Y institution without which their careers would disappear. Perhaps DH offers us a way out of the increasingly rationalized death-spiral of "impact scores" and credential inflation. Perhaps it will let us out-quantify the quantifiers, or sidestep them altogether.

Of course, the web always comes with liberatory rhetoric that usually turns out to mean little more than "what the market will bear," and the ostensible meritocracy of digital humanities in the present moment is really no more than a misalignment between its alternative (and potentially even more aggressively capitalistic) value systems and those of the institutionalized humanities more generally. It can be disturbingly easy for the genuinely progressive intentions of digital humanists to become assimilated to the vague libertarianisms of "information wants to be free" and "DIY U," and from there to Google Books and charter schools and the privatization of knowledge—an enclosure of the digital commons ironically in the name of openness. At the same time, the naming of the "alt-ac" "track" (it is generally not a track, of course, by definition) seems to provide new opportunities for young scholars even as it raises research expectations for staff and requires those on the "track" to subordinate their research interests to those of the institutional structure that employs them. Digital forms are exceptionally good at occluding labor. How to navigate those waters thoughtfully—to realize the real promise of DH—is a question to which we must all apply ourselves.

So you see what I mean when I say that "digital humanities and 'the job market'" as it now manifests isn't a narrow, merely administrative sliver of life of interest solely to junior academics who are still gravely listening to advice about how to "tailor" the teaching paragraphs in their cover letters. Digital humanities has become important to "the job market" exactly insofar as it is causing major shifts in the institutions of the profession. These shifts are political. And if you are in my profession, then they are your concern.

*I know, "enjoyed" and "Chronicle" in one sentence... mirabile dictu.

**As we all know, I have a complex relationship with the word "innovation" and do not consider it an unqualified good, nor a transhistorical value. For today, however, we will leave that particular word a black box.

Thanks to Bart and Colleen for sitting through a less-worked-out live version of this rant last week.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Natalia -- this needed to be said in exactly the way you have said it.

I think the debate about "digital humanities" is only partly about new methods or objects of study. It's at least equally about a challenge to our existing way of doing business in the humanities, where, right now -- to be candid -- who you know is really important.

I appreciate the distance you create here from web utopianism. It's not clear that DH has created, or will ever create, an ideally transparent and meritocratic space. But that hope (or threat, or delusion, or what you will) is what's fundamentally at issue, I think.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Natalia--

I'm a colleague of Jesse's in the ILA and saw his RT.

Very well said. I have thought a lot about this facade of democratization in the advent of digital humanities, and I too am critical of it. I think there is something to the notion of increased access (though, of course, only 20% of the world can reliably access the web), but access does not in and of itself equal democracy or meritocracy.

As someone who does ethnographic work, I do think that there might be some interesting ideas to think about re: reciprocity and research ethics. Certainly publishing in open access fora makes it more likely that your research collaborators will actually be able to read what you're writing about them. Despite these possibilities, however, I do think we need to stand back and look at DH with a bit more reflexivity.

Anonymous said...

What this sounds a lot like is a very long-winded way of saying 'I'm not sure I like doing DH and might rather be left alone to do traditional scholarship, but if I do I fear I might not get a job' Fair enough, if you don't what to do DH, don't but then you make a choice and live with it in terms of what you get hired to do. Oddly enough many DH people tried trad humanities, didn't like it and chose to move fields. Nobody made us do it, just as nobody is making you do DH. It's a personal decision, but not a case of having cake and eating it. I'm happy to leave you to create a traditional career if you will be good enough to allow people who want to do DH to make their own decisions. Even if they aren't the same as yours, and even if they choose (really) to be #alt-ac it doesn't make them wrong.

Natalia said...

Thanks for your comments, all.

Ted, I think you and I are right on the same page. DH has the potential to do something great to this profession, but realizing that potential is all of our jobs, whether or not we identify with the label "digital humanist." One way or another, it's already doing something.


Sarah, hey neighbor! Nice to internet-meet you. I wouldn't be so quick to call DH-democracy (let's call it) a "fa├žade"—it's not fake so much as not straightforward, which I think is what you're really pointing out here. It's difficult (and perhaps not desirable) to disarticulate our apprehension of the "democratic" from the institutional structures that we take as our reference points.

The time of critique and debunking is really sort of past; this is what I take to be the best version of Latour's argument in "Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?," whose "concern" makes a cameo at the end of this post. "DH: for it or against it?" is not a question that makes any sense in a profession in which DH has suddenly gained so much institutional traction.

Rather, we need to get agile and nuanced about describing the myriad ways that it has, and will, alter "the way we do business." We need a deep understanding of it, because facile polemics either pro or contra are so 2004. As Ted points out, it's DH's potential to alter the way we do business that makes it such a locus of (yes) concern—or at any rate, it should be.


Claire, you write: "Even if the[ir choices] aren't the same as yours, and even if they choose (really) to be #alt-ac it doesn't make them wrong." I agree. Did I suggest otherwise?