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Panel: The "#alt-ac" Track: Digital Humanists off the Straight and Narrow Path to Tenure

Nowviskie, Bethany, University of Virginia,

Flanders, Julia, Brown University,

Clement, Tanya, University of Maryland, College Park,

Reside, Douglas, New York Public Library,

Porter, Dorothy (Dot), University of Indiana,

Rochester, Eric, University of Virginia,

Participants and Presentations

Dr. Bethany Nowviskie (moderator): "DH in the # alt-ac ademy Project: Editing Alternate Academic Careers for Humanities Scholars"

Director, Digital Research & Scholarship (Scholars' Lab, UVa Library); Associate Director, Mellon Scholarly Communication Institute, University of Virginia

Dr. Julia Flanders: "Accounting for Time and Labor in the Knowledge Work of the Digital Humanities"

Director, Women Writers Project; Associate Director for Textbase Development, Scholarly Technology Group, Brown University

Dr. Tanya Clement: "Off the Tracks: Laying New Lines for Digital Humanities Scholars (Results of an NEH Workshop)"

Associate Director, Digital Cultures and Creativity, Honors College; Research Associate, Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH), University of Maryland, College Park

Dr. Doug Reside: "Of Ant-Lions and Scholar-Programmers: DH Centers as Ideal Habitat?"

Digital Curator for the Performing Arts, New York Public Library

Dot Porter, MLIS: "Credential-Creep in the Digital Humanities Job Market"

Associate Director for Digital Library Content & Services, Indiana University

Dr. Eric Rochester

Senior Developer, Digital Research & Scholarship (Scholars' Lab, UVa Library), University of Virginia

Panel Abstract

This is a panel session proposed by six established non-tenure-track practitioners and scholars of the digital humanities. Several of us are among the contributors to a forthcoming open-access essay collection on the place of "alternative academics" within the academy. Our goal is to open a discussion of issues from that collection, and from a related NEH-funded workshop on career paths in DH centers, that are relevant to the lives of digital humanists working outside the professoriate.

The "# alt-ac " project, to be published in 2011 (online, for comment and extension) by NYU's MediaCommons, features contributions by and for scholars with deep training and experience in the humanities, who are working or seeking employment — off the tenure track — within universities and colleges, or in allied knowledge and cultural heritage institutions such as museums, libraries, academic presses, historical societies, and governmental humanities organizations. For reasons ranging from the professional, intellectual, or institutional to the deeply personal, an increasing number of these people identify themselves as members of the digital humanities community.

The work of academic and cultural heritage institutions has long been enriched and enabled by humanities scholars, developers, and administrators like us. Regardless of institutional status, digital humanists maintain sophisticated research, publication, and production profiles and bring methodological and theoretical training to bear on problem-sets of great importance to traditional humanities disciplines and to the scholars who operate within them. However, class divisions between faculty and staff in higher education are profound, and the suspicion or (worse) condescension with which so- called 'failed academics' are sometimes met can be disheartening. Working, as we are often perceived to do, on the margins of C. P. Snow's "two cultures" (or, less polemically, at the interstices of libraries or DH centers and academic departments) digital humanities practitioners are sometimes placed well outside more easily-classified and socially-supported areas of the academic enterprise.

For all that, non-tenure-track digital humanists love their work. Many people navigating ill-defined alternative academic career paths speak compellingly about the satisfaction of making teams (and systems, and programs) work, of solving problems and personally making or enabling breakthroughs in research and scholarship in their disciplines, and of contributing to and experiencing the life of the mind in ways they did not imagine when they entered graduate school. Essays in our # alt-ac  collection range from personal narratives, positioned within certain academic disciplines and institutions, to staged dialogues on opportunities and pitfalls off the tenure track, to reflective and data-driven essays on the state of academic digital humanities and the (problematic? disruptive? salutary?) position of "alternative academics" within it. A few contributors also illustrate retrograde career paths or offer critiques of the # alt-ac  concept. Conversations stemming from the MediaCommons project have sparked a number of other collaborations, such as MITH's "Off the Tracks," an NEH workshop on institutional practices in "laying new lines for digital humanities scholars" — preliminary recommendations from which will be presented here.

The six speakers on our proposed panel will offer 7-minute summaries of their research or make position statements based on their published essays, before opening discussion amongst themselves and with the DH conference audience.

Briefly, the panelists include:

Dr. Bethany Nowviskie of the University of Virginia, who will also moderate the discussion. Nowviskie, who speaks and writes frequently on alternative academic careers in the digital humanities, is the editor of the forthcoming MediaCommons collection. She will frame this panel's discussion with an overview of concepts relevant to the digital humanities that have emerged in all contributed essays and dialogues and will reflect on some issues crucial to DH — such as intellectual freedom and policies related to open source and intellectual property — that were note foregrounded as clearly in the collection as one might expect.

Dr. Julia Flanders of Brown University. Flanders will speak to issues raised by her dissertation on the politics of labor in the digital humanities and her # alt-ac  essay, "You work at Brown — What do you Teach?," which examines the pragmatic and psychological effects of divergent practices in accounting for time and labor in knowledge work. How do we think of — and reward — time and effort differently when laborers on very similar projects may alternately be classified as adjunct, tenured, or tenure-track faculty, salaried staff, hourly wage employees, student apprentices and fellowship winners, and post-docs or research staff? What are the implications for our institutions and our digital humanities workforce?

Dr. Tanya Clement of the University of Maryland, College Park. Clement will describe the genesis, process, and outcomes of a two-day NEH workshop held at MITH, the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, in January of 2011. "Off the Tracks: Laying New Lines for Digital Humanties Scholars" will examine best practices across a number of differently-constituted digital humanities labs and centers, with the goal of articulating reasonable career trajectories and professional development opportunities for hybrid academics and scholar-programmers — employees who are not well served by a normative division between "research" usually associated with faculty positions and "service" usually associated with staff roles.

Dr. Doug Reside of the New York Public Library. Reside, formerly a "scholar-programmer" at MITH, is Clement's partner in the NEH workshop. His presentation will be informed by that experience and their collaborative drafting of a white paper based on the workshop, but he will also speak to the themes of his # alt-ac  essay, "Of Ant-Lions and Scholar-Programmers." Here, he argues that — of several imperfect options for satisfying the two (unified but sometimes contradictory) natures of the digital humanities software developer, a well-defined position in a digital humanities center holds the most promise.

Dot Porter, MLIS of the University of Indiana. As a distinguished member of the DH community and the only panelist not holding a doctorate in the humanities, Porter will speak to the issue of "credential creep" in the digital humanities job market. Her # alt-ac  essay, co-authored with Amanda Gailey of the University of Nebraska, likens the frequency with which DH jobs are now advertised as requiring a doctorate to the conditions described in William James's 1903 essay, The PhD Octopus. Gailey and Porter examine increasingly stringent job pre-requisites and what they term the "creeping Ivy" of elitism in the context of traditional spirits of entrepreneurship and egalitarianism in the digital humanities. Porter will conclude by offering clear recommendations to DH hiring committees.

Dr. Eric Rochester of the University of Virginia. After getting a PhD in English from the University of Georgia, Rochester worked as a computational linguist and programmer for a number of technology firms. He joined the Scholars' Lab at the University of Virginia Library as senior software developer in 2011. His presentation, “There and Back Again,” will discuss transitioning between industry and academia, and how to manage and ease that process for both the individual and the institution.

All six speakers have enthusiastically committed to attend and present at DH in Stanford. We recognize that the presence of "alternative" academic career paths is long-established in the digital humanities — if in generally ad-hoc ways — and will not argue that our roles and observations are fundamentally new. However, we feel strongly that this conference — with its focus on the "big tent" of the digital humanities, and occurring at a time when humanities graduate students are faced with the worst tenure-track job market in memory — is the right moment for a sustained and critical discussion of the opportunities and challenges of DH career-seekers off the straight and narrow path to tenure.


James, W. 1903 “The Ph.D. Octopus, ” Harvard Monthly, 36 1-9

Nowviskie, Bethany 2011 #alt-academy: Alternative Academic Careers for Humanities Scholars, MediaCommons: a digital scholarly network (link)

Off the Tracks: Laying New Lines for Digital Humanities Scholars, 19-20 January 2011 (link)