From Doctoral Study to … Digital Humanities

Full vitae career talk

Image: Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

In a series of columns, "From Doctoral Study to …," the Career Talk columnists explore nonfaculty options for Ph.D.’s who want to work in higher education.

Julie: Even though it hasn’t been the savior that some advocates hoped it would be, the digital humanities continues to have its moment on the academic job market, in the classroom and the laboratory, and among major funders of humanities research. Helping graduate students to develop digital skills is at the center of almost every conversation about retooling the humanities Ph.D.

The emergence of academic-staff positions related to the digital humanities is what led to the "alt-ac" term and culminated in the creation of the #Alt-Academy project, a great resource for graduate students thinking about nonfaculty career options.

Jenny: Digital humanities — or DH, as it’s known — isn’t a field per se, said Stewart Varner, managing director of the Price Lab for Digital Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania. "But," he said, "it is often treated as such by people who consider themselves digital humanists as well as those who adamantly do not."

Molly O’Hagan Hardy, director of digital and book-history initiatives at the American Antiquarian Society, said she likes "to think of it as a set of methodologies and dispositions toward what we can know about past and current moments of cultural production."

Julie: Graduate students — while interested in DH positions on campuses, in libraries, museums, archives, and other cultural organizations — are often unsure how to prepare for that work, or what their career path might look like once they’ve gotten that first job. As a part of our continuing series on the types of administrative careers open to Ph.D.s, we talked with three (including Varner and Hardy) whose work focuses on the digital humanities.

Jenny: Varner and Hardy came to a DH career via their institution’s libraries. Varner worked with the Emory Women Writers Resource Project scanning books, proofreading, and doing some technical work. At the University of Texas at Austin, Hardy got her start as a research assistant at the Harry Ransom Center during a two-year program designed primarily for students in the library information school though it offers a few spots each year to humanities Ph.D. students.

Julie: On the other hand, Paige Morgan, a digital humanities librarian at the University of Miami, found that her graduate institution didn’t have a good support structure for helping students learn DH tools. So she and another graduate student wrote a grant to develop six workshops aimed at introducing people from a range of disciplines to DH thinking.

"The workshops were very meta," Morgan told us. "We taught people about the underlying motivations and values of the field, the critical thought process of creating machine-readable data from the material they worked with, how to think about project ideation and development, and how to choose the right tools." That experience, she said, led to her postdoc at the Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship at McMaster University.

Jenny: All three acknowledged that it was difficult to complete a dissertation while exploring a new professional path on the side. They said it was critical to secure funding to support your DH training — either through a library position or teaching.

Two of them took advantage of DH training programs outside their university. Hardy attended the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School. "Librarians are some of the best nonclassroom teachers," she said. "They tend to be incredibly smart, incredibly innovative and thoughtful in processing humanities data, and incredibly eager to share their knowledge." Paige attended the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria every summer.

Julie: What if you don’t have the opportunity or the money to participate in a formal training program? We asked our three experts to recommend some tools and resources and offer some advice for getting started.

Learn everything you can, Hardy said, about data — its "creation, management, and preservation." Perhaps start by learning to work with data in Excel or OpenRefine. "All tools have a learning curve," she said, "and before you set out to learn TEI or Gephi or ArcGIS or whatever it is, be sure that you understand why you are learning it. A clear sense of purpose will carry you through the inevitable frustrations and confusions that come with learning something new."

Jenny: Two classic references cited by Morgan as her "touchstones" were Donella Meadows’s "Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System" and Virginia Valian’s "Learning to Work." While "neither essay is specifically about alt-ac or library work, both are about making changes in thoughtful ways that involve a lot of careful listening and awareness of the existing things and people whom you might be trying to change."

Morgan also cited the #critlib community on Twitter, and the online journal In the Library with the Lead Pipe, as well as books from the Library Juice Press. "Although these sources are library focused," she said, "I think that in many instances they have relevance for other parts of academia (i.e., departments, centers, etc.)." Finally, she noted, "one of the best sources for learning about organization and institutional thinking in libraries is the Library Loon’s blog."

Julie: Sometimes people can be your best resource. "Academia is a very small world even if you count its neighbors in government and media," Varner said.

"For grad students who are looking outside the tenure track for jobs, your academic adviser may not be equipped to help. Social media makes it a little easier to get in touch with people who might be able to shed a little light on something and give you advice. I have a personal policy of making time for anyone who wants to talk about what I do. Be respectful of people’s time but don’t be afraid to ask for informational interviews."

When you’re talking with people, Morgan said, ask about what worked and what didn’t in their digital projects. "Hearing from people about what they think made new initiatives succeed or fail," she said, "has been influential on my own thinking about new programs."

Jenny: A key question for any grad students and Ph.D.s looking to shift direction in their careers: What skills do hiring managers look for in job candidates in DH?

The mix of technical skills "absolutely depends on the job." But "soft skills," they said, were also crucial to DH work. "In hiring," Hardy said, "I seek individuals who can think through the problems data inevitably present. Instead of saying ‘What do we do about X?,’ such individuals tell me ‘I encountered X. Here are the advantages of handling it this way, and here are the advantages of handling it that way. Which direction should we go?’"

Similarly, Morgan looks for "people who are interested, not just in big ideas and grand visions, but also in tiny changes that could be really significant; people who are proactive in thinking about inclusivity and social justice; people who can reflect on their actions and learn from them; and people who are not afraid to say they don’t know something, and who can then develop a plan for how we might start figuring that something out."

Julie: For many scholars in the humanities, one of the most compelling reasons for pursuing DH work is the possibility that they could continue their own line of research. Don’t count on it, though. All three of our experts said it was difficult to find time for their own research in the midst of all the work they do to support other people’s scholarship."

"Remember that dissertation I mentioned?" Hardy said. "With the exception of a handful of conference presentations, it is pretty much sitting on my desk at home, awaiting my undivided attention. I go through spurts of dedicating 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. to my own writing and research, and then inevitably, a grant deadline looms or a meeting demands preparation, and my twilight hours are given over to more immediate tasks. I should add: I am fortunate enough to work at a place where most of the work I do really excites me as an intellectual."

For Varner, moving into DH meant that he left behind his work in American studies, but "published quite a bit on changes in libraries and digital humanities. It is worth mentioning that many academic libraries have tenure (or something similar to tenure) for librarians, and publishing is generally part of making those promotions."

Likewise, Morgan’s work has shifted "more toward questions of process and infrastructure in libraries: how people work with systems, how we build effective systems for people to learn, etc., how we describe what DH/DS librarians do. I’m quite happy about that, because I love those topics."

Jenny: We always ask our interviewees about future trends in their career path. One emerging trend, according to Varner, is the desire to make DH "less special" and incorporate more of its methods into the humanities curriculum for undergraduates and graduate students. Hardy noted two areas of increasing interest: "The Mellon-funded initiatives for digital platforms for scholarly publication certainly have pushed that toward the forefront of the DH conversation. And perhaps I am revealing my own biases here, but scholars are increasingly recognizing the importance of special collections and archival data."

In fact, all three experts expressed hope that DH tools would transform how humanities scholars communicate — both among themselves and with the public.

In addition, Morgan is seeing "more interest in platforms like RStudio that can work with enormous datasets. But there actually aren’t countless large humanities datasets out there, so I think that more focus on data curation will be productive." She also noted that many older digital projects are breaking down as they "age out of the current tech infrastructure" — making sustainability an increasingly important part of the DH conversation.

Julie: As career counselors, we always suggest that people imagine what their professional future would look like in a given field before diving into it. However, it’s always a challenge to think about how to move forward in a field that’s new and lacks long-established organizational hierarchies.

When we asked about the possibilities for advancement in the digital humanities, Varner replied: "That’s a good question and one I don’t really think about. I’ve been the first person in every job I’ve ever had since I finished grad school so I just expect the landscape to continue to evolve. I don’t think of what I do as a static job with a stable job description. I’m here to work with people who want make sure the humanities remain vibrant, critical, and engaged and who are willing to use any tool or method available to do that work."

Jenny: As in many careers, Morgan said, advancement depends on where you’d like to go. "Some people doing DH in libraries may want to work toward a role like being head of digital scholarship, supervising a small staff of other librarians. Others may want to move into an administrative role (library-based or not) where they’re helping to develop campus strategies and policies around data curation, digital publishing, open access, and open educational resources (OER). Some people may really love the work of doing consultations and working with students and faculty to develop research projects, so they may not want to move into more administrative roles that often mean giving that work up."

If regularly learning new techniques, systems, and skills — and possibly, developing them as well — excites you, the work rather than the ladder will most likely be what motivates you.

Julie: The future is in flux for digital humanities. "There’s a growing awareness that DH roles have their own set of labor problems," Morgan said, "partly arising from a belief that DH practitioners can just ‘hack’ something and make it work, and partly arising from the fact that I don’t think we (meaning libraries, departments, and centers) have clear ideas of what success with DH looks like, and what sort of investment is necessary to get there."

Jenny: If the humanities are "meant to be the place where we think critically about culture and society," Varner said, "humanists really need to understand code and algorithms and the power of data in a nontrivial way. … I hope that more humanities scholars will be equipped to critically engage with, and respond to, the role of technology in our lives. AI, VR, and algorithmic processes are not just challenges for computer science — they are challenges for literature, history, gender and sexuality studies, anthropology, and philosophy."

Jennifer S. Furlong is director of the office of career planning and professional development at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York Graduate Center. Julie Miller Vick retired as senior career adviser of career services at the University of Pennsylvania. With Rosanne Lurie they are the authors of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press), 5th edition.

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