Wednesday, November 14, 2012

DH Grad Students! What Do You Want?

Seriously now, tell me. I'm currently a Member at Large on the executive of the Canadian Society for Digital Humanities, and I've decided to do some work to help grad students.

I'm not, actually, a grad student, and I haven't been since, err, 2004. But I was a grad student in Digital Humanities (or "Humanities Computing" as we used to call it when I was a youngster) from 1997-2004, over two degrees and in two universities. From the wonderful, invigorating panel discussion on graduate issues in DH at last year's Congress in Waterloo, I learned that ... much has changed since my time, but also, depressingly, other things have not changed at all.

Some issues I discern:

  • Alt-ac: is it really a thing? A desirable thing? How to plan for this career path? How to advocate for this work as "alternatively academic" rather than "alternative to academic"?
  • Dissertations: Should dissertation or completion requirements devised, in my discipline, for literature students investigating their ideas in prose be the same ones we use to assess or train digital humanists? What is the role of the built object in capstone work for DH PhDs? How about programming? Or soldering? 
  • Double-disciplining: It is still true that digital humanists, particularly students, have to do twice the work for half the credit--not just in the dissertation, but in everything. We are expected to have full knowledge of the primary discipline that house and credentials us, as well as full knowledge of the emerging canon of thinking and range of practice of DH.
  • Can you fix my printer / build the department website / manage our Facebook page / explain the cloud to the department? Even DHers hired into academic positions may find themselves being asked to do kinds and numbers of tasks other professors or students are not asked to do.
  • RA work: how is being a research assistant in DH different from standard RA positions? Are there some best practices here? How to explain to others the value or scope of this work, and the skills unique to these positions? (Like project managment, collaboration, technical work, etc.)
  • Unreasonable job ads: "Department of Something seeks expert in Medieval Whatsit, an expertise in composition theory, and a funded multimillion dollar research project in DH." Many hiring departments do not seem to know quite how to hire a DHer into the tenure track, and what it is reasonable to expect. Needs some advocacy?
  • Access to research equipment, datasets, etc. This work often requires high-power tech, beyond the index cards (or Scrivener) that other humanist grad students need to get their work done. How to fund this?
  • Training: Nuff said.
  • Grad programs in DH: what should these look like? Are they a good idea? In what ways and for whom?
What do YOU think needs addressing. And how can I (and by extension, CSDH) help?

Drop some comments; tweet this and share with your network; beat the bushes from some ideas and some interested parties.

Give it your best shot, and I'll give it mine.


  1. One important issue in conversations among graduate students here at Berkeley is the need for a framework that supports and encourages collaborative research. In general, I think it is agreed that DH projects require the skills of multiple specialists - from the humanities and the humanistic social sciences on the one hand and computer and information sciences on the other - and so collaboration is crucial. Yet the dominant model of humanistic research is that of a single scholar working alone. Some amount of training in collaborative research would be a great benefit, I feel, to any program in DH.

  2. Hi Aimée-

    Great post, and thanks for the kind words about the panel at last year's Congress. I wanted to pipe up to add a few things, and also to leave these links to wrap-ups of our panel for anyone interested:

    On to my two cents: From my perspective as a doctoral student, the most frustrating thing is the mind-boggling resistance to any sort of change on the administrative end. Individual faculty mentors are, in many cases, fantastically responsive and capable; for most students, however, we still operate within departments that require very conservative, very traditional modes of operation. Off the cuff, I think these include dissertation thesis requirements (no electronic work, please, that's not 'real' scholarship) and lack of formalized training programs for the area (the University of Victoria just this semester drafted & ratified a Digital Humanities & New Media major field reading list, despite being a center for digital scholarship in Canada since at least 04-05).

    I think the points you highlight are bang on, especially the ones about RA work and job ads. RA work is a vital part, I think, of on the job training for digital humanists. I think we could learn a great deal from colleagues in the sciences about research teams, collaborative work, etc. We don't have to import their theoretical assumptions about objectivity and empiricism to acknowledge that they are far better at the lab structure and teams than most humanists!

    As for job ads, especially to a 2nd year doctoral student, I am not even sure where to begin. I'm pretty involved and do my best to keep up with things, but even with several years to go I feel like there is absolutely no way most ads for DH are reasonable about where a PhD can be by the end of a program. I knew it was bad when I couldn't tell whether some of the MLA Job Ads tumblr entries ( were real or satire!

    I could go on for hours, but I will restrain myself to one last comment. :)

    Responding directly to Scott: I think you are right--but I would add that DH seems to be very good at generating virtual collaboration opportunities (DH Commons, HASTAC, etc) but that those same structures are often lacking "on the ground" at particular institutions. Some of that is inevitable, obviously, as research communities are unevenly distributed, but it seems more noticeable in DH precisely because collaboration is so emphasized. And when we do collaborate, I doubt I am alone in feeling that departments aren't sure what to make of it!

    Thanks again Aimée, and I look forward to further discussion on this!

  3. Well that didn't publish my name as I thought it would; oops!

    The big ramble above is by me, Daniel Powell, at the University of Victoria. ;)

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Hi Aimée,

    Thanks for raising these important and challenging issues.

    In a great testament to the occasional failures of technology, I had just finished typing my response when a WordPress login error ended up erasing it.

    Happily, I think that this error is a good analogy for our DH concerns. Technology sometimes fails us, but it's easier to blame the nonhuman element behind the code than to admit that sometimes we are directly involved in the problem. What I mean to say is that just as I was tempted to not retype my post, many times we are still tempted (or even content) to simply go on with our own, personal investments in DH without trying to rewrite the very system that allows us or keeps us from our work. (And I include myself in this list, especially as a graduate student still negotiating how to present herself in the job market)

    As you so aptly put it, there are still problems at the institutional level. One big problem is that DH is often only legitimized as a "bonus" to more traditional work. There are departments and professors fighting to make sure that digital work and digital publication count as much as article and book publications in print. However, for those of us who are graduate students, the general advice is still to prioritize academic, printed journals, which many schools value (and feel more prepared to judge) over digital work.

    Collaboration is another issue, as Scott and Daniel rightly point out. And to add to Daniel's point about "on the ground" structures, we need more DH professors in English and Literature departments. Whether it is possible to have a professor who is both (as I hope to be one day) is another issue in itself. When we are applying to DH + Lit positions, are we applying to teach Lit with a DH lens, or are we still separating the two? In other words, is still possible (or desirable) to teach a full course load while also overseeing major digital projects supported by the university? Those of us caught in this in-between point may be ideally placed to help solve some of these issues, though many institutional changes must happen from the "inside" and hopefully be led by our own advisors and mentors, so that we feel less anxiety about becoming (or presenting ourselves as) "alternatively academic."

  6. I've heard recently of several recent tenure track DH hires ending up as department tech support. At the IDHMC, we have people advocating for us when the time comes, but I imagine most students don't have anyone to support them in negotiating certain expectations about what their job entails in a department that knows they need someone in DH without knowing what that means. To bring together several elements that you brought up and some of what Andie mentioned, there needs to be guidelines in place to help less DH knowledgeable departments to agree explicit and reasonable terms and empower job candidates with the knowledge of what to ask for and how. Basically, we need to be able to start a position knowing/having negotiated how that teaching split works, as Andie mentions, how much DH projects count towards tenure (without none being an option), how much traditional scholarship/publication needs to accompany that work for tenure, what the department or university is expected to provide to allow for that DH work/the DH work that they are asking for and expecting, what concessions will be made regarding digital scholarship expectations and tenure if the money supporting it doesn't materialize from the department or university as planned and faculty need to apply for grants to even get their projects off the ground, and the difference between a DH research/teaching position and tech support.

    Thinking about coursework and training, obviously a major aspect is the availability of necessary resources and faculty. How can distance certificate programs work? I'm thinking of the proposed DHSI model for one, but what about something that can be adopted within the curriculum of universities. This semester, we have 2 DH classes offered in our department. This is a new thing that certainly wasn't the case when I started coursework. What if those classes were available for remote students, enrolling in the course, skyping into class, and interacting with the professor for office hours and assignments via skype and email? How can software access and server space be arranged for those students?

  7. I'll try to keep this short. I am a 3rd year PhD Candidate in English, but I also do interaction design and web development work on the side for a number of clients, which often intersects with DH initiatives (to date I've worked on digital projects for academics, small businesses, NGOs, academic societies, and individuals). For the most part, both passions are separate and I often find myself working within two completely different industries that often don't understand the value and processes of the other (e.g. taking IxD, design, or research skills for granted). I do not expect my department to recognize my "other job" unless it directly impacts the completion of my dissertation. Rather, I would like to see more support and information about alt-ac paths and, perhaps more importantly, non-academic jobs given the dismal academic job market.

    I think your point about unreasonable job ads is also spot on. When a Lit + DH job is posted it seems anyone who has ever used a computer sometimes feels they can apply. Unfortunately, this can potentially dilute applications, making it difficult for folks to discern DH applicants. I think search committees should be made aware of what it means to be active in the DH community -- that is, if they truly want to hire someone for a Lit+DH position (and not someone to act as the department's techie!)

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  9. Hi Aimée,
    I loved reading this piece! Well written! :)

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