Scheinfeldt and Flanders: Alt-ac

Tom Schienfeldt – “Toward a Third Way: Rethinking Academic Employment”

My guess is that Scheinfeldt intended this as an appeal to the DH community – those inside and influenced by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, (Scheinfeldt’s then employer; he’s now on a faculty line at UConn) and other DH loci dotted around the DC metro area. Scheinfeldt is talking to DHers he hopes might eventually take over his CHNM role (hard or soft money allowing), and to the newer academic crowd he might employ in the consistently funded digital humanities positions he describes working tirelessly to maintain. I can imagine juggling soft money to create stable employment beyond a grant cycle was tough work, and it sounds completely impossible from a CUNY perspective, what with CUNYFirst and our lithe HR support. I would guess it helped, finance wise, that CHNM is a separate research center, and built an endowment.

Scheinfeldt’s appeal makes a lot of sense when I consider his role in DH. He and his colleagues have worked hard and made a success of this type of alternative academic employment (which I think is awesome, btw) so it is only natural that he would use his position and this post as recruitment for bright new PhDs to go work for him. It’s not that Scheinfeldt is merely concerned with preserving legacy, he believes this work is just as valuable as traditional tenure track work. I agree that a tenure position is but one of many important roles in an academic institution, and I also lament that it still carries a particularly coveted patena. In so far as Scheinfeldt can be a mentor and enabler for alt-ac folks to forge ahead with the support of leaders like him, I applaud his words.

But I have fundamental disagreements with the tenor he uses to structure his argument and I question whether this post would have any impact beyond the DH community. Let me try to explain “tenor” here. When I read this, I heard someone speaking from experience; a very exceptional, and privileged one. I did not get the impression that Scheinfeldt had a true understanding of the realities of librarians or tenure track faculty. Or maybe he didn’t think revealing an understanding was important to this discussion? Mentions of tenure track faculty and librarians, even libraries, were invoked in rather crude terms, seemingly for the sole purpose of advancing his own agenda (though I agree with asserting alt-ac equality). Last time I checked, the library, second only to staff and students, was at the center of the university. Obviously, I’m biased. I was also not so sold when he brought up soft/hard money, the polarities of job security, and the walmart/university simile.

My trouble with this piece, and why I think it falls short of being effective, is basically my trouble with academia (and it extends beyond university grounds). As a reader who wouldn’t consider myself Scheinfeldt’s target audience (I’m a librarian BUT I’m faculty status), I think the tone of this discussion accentuates the purveying lack of awareness or concern for units (human or other) that constitute a more complete, albeit flawed organism. This absence, in academia and elsewhere, may be partly attributable to ignorance, inexperience, fear, selfishness, bullying, transactionality, the bureaucratic beast, institutional siloing, not enough hours in the day…etc.

When we position ourselves as, or conceive those beyond us as “other” or “outside,” absence is produced. The results of this are felt by many graduate students as their advisers and departments endeavor to mold them in their own likenesses (traditional faculty roles), and as members of their cohort attain competitive and prestigious post docs, followed by tenure track positions. It’s all well and good for Scheinfeldt to preach for alt-ac, but the reality is that people feel pressure to perform and to compete in these conventional academic roles and it’s hard to make a leap without feeling much risk, and the deep possibility of failure. The preening of the academic can be a major exercise in solitude and insulation. And preparing an annual tenure review packet, feels much the same. You are forced to report all of your work under one of three columns: teaching, service, or scholarship. No double dipping allowed, although I would have guessed conveying that my work crossed every domain was a win!

So I think reforming the faculty system of tenure and reward is very important. Scheinfeldt speaks of the changing nature of digital humanities scholarship and work, and I think the challenges of the digital humanities are a proxy for the challenges inherent to the whole university. Fundamental questions that press the academic organism are the shift in scholarly communications, and what it means to do collaborative, digital research. I believe teaching must move out from behind scholarship, and become equally as important. Incidentally, I think Scheinfeldt’s work is great on this front. In my institution for instance, there are a number of pedagogical programs that instructors participate in (beyond classroom teaching) that are usually a ton of work, but also extremely important to the college community – and looked upon very highly by college administration. Yet, translating this labor into the tenure portfolio still requires juggling, and faculty can start to second guess how they choose to spend their time. Do something to benefit the college, or to benefit themselves? This is silliness. The college wants to employ good pedagogues and scholars, so can’t we find a way to reward this in practical terms?

And, for possible context, my position is quite rare for an academic librarian. My faculty status is equal to teaching faculty; equal in the sense that we librarians at CUNY have the exact same tenure guidelines and review as other faculty. This has mostly been a net positive for me so far, and I’ll briefly explain why. Libraries and or librarians are perceived to, and often operate at the behest of and in service to others. Providing a service is fine. But the reality is that academic libraries are more than a service. Libraries have their own agenda, mission, and expertise. Of course, a huge aspect of that is to serve and provide resources, but many faculty can be largely unaware of the rest of the library’s goals and initiatives. One such example would be the library as purveyor of critical information literacy. I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t feel as empowered to put my work at the level of importance as faculty outside the library if I didn’t have faculty status. I’ll often hear librarian colleagues, and have observed myself becoming preoccupied with how to help and serve the college community as if we’ve always been fighting for relevance through someone or something else. I think this is a misrepresentation. I believe we’ve always been relevant but that we have the unique privilege and curse of having much less time to push or advocate on our sole behalf because we are often working to advance others. I think this reality produces many librarians who are keen to collaborate and are particularly receptive of stuff “outside” the library. But I fear many folks beyond the library have much less practice or incentive to improve on this. And while I concede that it can be frustrating for the library to balance its roles, I think, or at least would like to think, that we’ve been working in an environment that is far more complementary than (some) other units of the university have. We could use more of this.

Julia Flanders, “Time, Labor, and ‘Alternate Careers’ in Digital Humanities Knowledge Work,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities

Reading Julia Flander’s chapter after writing the above was kind of amazing. I was particularly struck with this:

Self-consciousness in the consultant arises partly from habitual exposure to infinite variety of beliefs, ways of doing things, and systems of value and partly from the constant projection of oneself into other people’s imaginative spaces. The consultant must identify, however briefly and professionally, with the client’s situation…”

Flanders’ is a critical read and observation of “para-academic” roles. I’m particularly interested with her comments on consulting and observing transactions between clients: the clients’ relief at not having to be responsible for certain knowledge, and finding satisfaction from consultant answers with a monetary transactional dimension. Also, the notion of hourly/work for hire labor versus the traditional academic labor paradigm, and the resulting quantifiable labor and outcomes is a really important piece of the conversation which Scheinfeldt’s piece did not tackle at all.

Keeping this short since I already wrote a lot, any reactions to the following statements?

“By formalizing humanities research practices and rendering explicit the premises on which they rest, digital humanists also make possible critique and change.” – Flanders

Re: the fractionalization of workers: “…it constitutes a displacement of autonomy concerning what to work on when and how long to take…a reversal of the classic narrative of academic work.” – Flanders

Are there exceptional models that we celebrate without daring to imitate? Are there exceptional models we are enacting?

It would be great also to hear examples of how we’ve negotiated our choices around investing time and labor as academics.


5 thoughts on “Scheinfeldt and Flanders: Alt-ac

  1. tperson

    Wow Cailean!
    You give a lot to think about here. Re: the fractionalization of workers: I think that you give me a different way in which to thin about academic work. I thought about Flanders’ point as someone who seeks to enter the academic field and so witnessing the death of tenure as well as the lessening of autonomy in scholarship, I was inclined to agree with Flanders.
    What will the addition of Digital Humanities skills mean for those of us who seek tenure in the world of academe? I hate to think Cailean that the university library system, which I agree is the backbone of the institution, might become less valuable as digital humanities shifts the focus on work and knowledge acquisition.

  2. Sara Vogel, PhD. (she/her)

    Of the quotes you pulled from Flanders, the one on the fractionalization of workers most resonated with me. For Flanders, the autonomy of traditional academic work is both a blessing and a curse: academics have the freedom to pick their own hours, but this autonomy, coupled with the most common “academic personality” which she alludes to, means all hours are potentially work hours: “No amount of effort could be sufficient to really complete it and therefore no time could legitimately be spent on anything else.” Couldn’t help but see myself on a bad week reflected in that quote — Sometimes I look back on my 9 to 5 with such nostalgia….

    The para academic positions she describes in the piece provide some alternatives to that academic model where work interpenetrates life. While freelancers and consultants may similarly work for themselves (and if so, could choose to take on more or less work), they are beholden to a client, popping in and out of projects with a curious and intellectual, but distanced disposition. I suppose the best academic work is applicable to and embedded in communities of practice, but the stakes of academic work are high for one’s own reputation and identity, in a way that they are not for para academic work, which seems to be more collaborative. While there is the matter of equating time and work as fungible products that comes with salaried employment, para academics are valued for both the technical and “metaknowledge” they can provide. How appealing that sounds from the other side!

    I was surprised, however that both Flanders and Scheinfeldt didn’t go into depth on the elusive “academic freedom” argument for tenured faculty positions. When you live on salary, grant to grant, what’s to stop a research or library center from just becoming a “hired gun” for whatever philanthropic flavor of the week?

  3. Jojo Karlin (she/her/hers)

    Thanks for the Scheinfeldt run-down and the interesting quotes. In my research of digital preservation of digital dissertations for my final paper, I have been spending lots of time thinking about archives (the GC has such amazing librarians) and how the need for credentialing and hiring works with regards to digital projects. In your first Flanders quote, you bring up formalizing humanities practices. I do think there is potential for generating change as we restructure to accommodate new forms. Perhaps I am overly optimistic, but I do think we can help instigate change by continuing conversations about the centrality of the library and considerations of tenure structure in relation to university-wide staffing.

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