Tag Archives: digital humanities

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.


Steve Jones and the Humanities, Everted

Steve Jones was a Distinguished Visiting Professor for the Advanced Research Collaborative at The Graduate Center last year (2014-2015), and as a result, I had the chance to hear him speak a few times. One of the features I admire about his work is the way it traces beginnings to moments of critical mass–certainly a goal of the introduction and first chapter of his 2013 book, The Emergence of the Digital Humanities. As I understand, Jones is now working on a history of Father Busa, the so-called founding father of digital humanities-type research who produced a concordance of Saint Thomas Aquinas using IBM’s computers around the 1950s. This project, like his others, suggests a common methodology: return to historical roots for new ways of thinking, uncover institutional forces that shaped movements, and interrogate these systems to highlight their current digital and networked instantiations.

Something that has struck me throughout this course is the intense relevance of science fiction, and thinking to Cory Doctorow, young adult versions of this genre, to imagining digital futures. Jones uses the work of William Gibson–who also coined the term “cyberspace”–to refine the term “eversion” (also Gibson’s word) for conceiving of our relationship to technology anew. For Jones, “eversion” is the idea that we no longer tune in to digital worlds, or engage with networks by booting up or down a computer, but that the omnipresence of the network creeps outward into our daily lives and physical space. The WiFi waves that surround our bodies when we’re in networked buildings, the GPS in our phones (GPS is a huge turning point for Jones’ argument about eversion, perhaps worthy of classroom discussion) that tracks our location on grids, gaming devices like the Wii, all indicate that we are surrounded by the stuff of digitality and can no longer contain it in a tiny screen or device. This idea dovetails with Hayles’ argument from How We Became Posthuman that information is material, suggesting, in part, that what’s at stake in Jones’ argument–although he doesn’t necessarily pick this up–is what it means to be human in an everted age. Perhaps Haraway might have something to add!

Jones covers much ground in the first two sections of The Emergence of the Digital Humanities, but by far the most resonant and applicable idea that I’ve extracted is that of “eversion.” Since this term is also the organizing principle for his book, in lieu of a blow-by-blow of the readings, I’ll trot right to the provocations:

***The introduction ends with Jones’ statement that “the digital humanities is the humanities everted” (16). As evidence, he suggests that “DH has the potential to facilitate…productive breaches, to afford the kinds of cultural exchange that have shaped the new DH since its emergence” both inside and outside of the academy (16). Do you agree with his assessment of DH constituted an everted humanities? I’ve been chewing on this one a while.

***Related to eversion, Jones suggests that “the new DH starts from the assumption of a new, mixed-reality humanities” (32) that functions “less like an academic movement and more like a transitional set of practices at a crucial juncture, on the one hand moving between old ideas of the digital and of the humanities, and on the other hand, moving toward new ideas about both.” Looping about around to Haraway and Hayles (very poetic at the end of the semester), how might we build further nuance into this argument? Are “mixed-reality humanities” depending on either student or institutional economic stability/wealth, ideological systems, or perhaps combinations of other factors?

***Jones makes an important distinction in his definition of eversion by noting that the network doesn’t turn “itself inside out,” but rather “human agency” accomplishes this task–just how “games require players” and “digital humanities research requires scholar-practitioners” (36). Many of our course themes have attempted to account for human elements in digital research and pedagogy–it always comes back to the embodied self. How do we continue to negotiate the balance between concepts and theories like eversion and the human elements that are inherent in their animation?