Bethany Nowviskie

eternal september of the digital humanities

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Here’s where I am. It’s nearly Hallowe’en, and kids have settled into school routines. I have little ones in my own house and big ones in the Scholars’ Lab — the youngest of whom are newly, this year, exactly half my age. Other kids are dead, and it’s still bothering me a good deal. Mornings in Virginia feel cold now, and acorns are everywhere underfoot. We’re tracking leaves inside.

It’s a melancholy way to begin a post, but it situates us.

It’s October 2010 in the social scene of the digital humanities, and (yes, I’m feeling wry) our gathering swallows Twitter in the skies.

I tweet a lot. It’s a mixture — the writing and the reading — of shallow, smart, and sweet. I answer lots of email, too, lots of messages from strangers asking questions. We’re doing a good job, my team, and people are asking how. I stuck my neck out on a thing or two, and people are asking why, or for more. This fall, I worked with friends to launch a website that I’m proud of — which is for strangers, asking questions. I’ve stopped answering to the phone.

There’s a bit of a joke around the SLab, about the degree to which the boss-lady is not service-oriented. It’s funny (as they say), because it’s true. But it’s only true insofar as I let it be — and most local colleagues realize that I put on this persona consciously, as a useful corrective or (at least) a countering provocation to that strong and puzzling tendency I have noted as a scholar come to work in libraries: the degree to which the most beautiful quality of librarianship — that it is a service vocation — becomes the thing that makes the faculty, on the whole, value us so little. Service as servile. The staffer, the alternate academic, the librarian, the non-tenure-track digital humanist, as intellectual partner? Not so long as we indulge our innate helpfulness too much. And not so long as we are hesitant to assert our own, personal research agendas — the very things that, to some of us once expected to join the professoriate, felt too self-indulgent to be borne.

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  • Published: Oct 14th, 2010
  • Category: higher ed

the #alt-ac track: negotiating your “alternative academic” appointment

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[In late August, I wrote this post for the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s “ProfHacker” column. Because the enlightened Profs Hacker have ensured that all PH content is Creative-Commons licensed and I may, I’m re-posting it here! You can still read the original article, along with the comments it received, on the Chronicle‘s site.]

By now, avid ProfHacker readers will have encountered the cipher “#alt-ac:” a neologism and Twitter hashtag that marks conversations about “alternate academic” careers for humanities scholars. Here, “alternate” typically denotes neither adjunct teaching positions nor wholly non-academic (what-color-is-your-parachute, maybe-should-have-gotten-an-MBA) jobs — about which, in comparison, advice is easy to find.

Instead, the #alt-ac label speaks to to a broad set of hybrid, humanities-oriented professions centered in and around the academy, in which there are rich opportunities to put deep — often doctoral-level — training in scholarly disciplines to use. Recent #alt-ac conversation online additionally tends to focus on the digital humanities, a community of practice marrying sophisticated understanding of traditional disciplines with new tools and methods. The digital humanities constitute, in my opinion, the best gig in town — attracting scholars who exhibit restless, interdisciplinary curiosity, mastery of relevant research tools and methods (old and new), and uncommon comfort — in a world that defines expertise like this — with a general assumption that practitioners are jacks-of-all-trades.

If they are to serve us well, academic IT, libraries, publishing, humanities labs and centers, funders and foundations, focused research projects, cultural heritage institutions, and higher ed administration require a healthy influx of people who understand scholarship and teaching from the inside. That our culture for many years has labelled these people “failed academics” is a failure of imagination. Those who gravitate toward #alt-ac positions during or after completing graduate study are often driven to set things in motion in the academic environment, and to set things right. Couple the attractive #alt-ac mission of building systems (social, scholarly, administrative, technical) with an exceptionally sorry academic job market, and it becomes clear that more and more graduate students, post-docs, junior faculty, and underemployed lecturers will be stepping off the straight and narrow path to tenure. Read the rest of this entry »

“but who looks east at sunset?” gerard manley hopkins & scientific observation

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[This is the abstract of a talk I gave last weekend at “By the Numbers: The Victorian Quantification of Everything,” the 2010 gathering of the Victorians Institute, held at the University of Virginia. It was a splendid conference, hosted by NINES, and featuring an inspiring keynote address in which Dan Cohen presented the early results of his work in data-mining the Google Books corpus to study Victorian intellectual history. For me, the conference was notable because it was the first time in twelve years that I gave a paper not on digital humanities or institutional issues in publishing and higher ed. Since the conference didn’t publish a collection of abstracts, I thought I’d post mine (sans notes!) here. The paper itself goes into much greater detail on Hopkins’ approach to observation and the scene of Victorian scientific amateurism, and is available upon request.]

In October 1884, a letter appearing in the scientific journal Nature enjoined readers to place their faith in the measurements of “exact instruments” rather than in “untrustworthy impressions of the eye” in attempting to draw conclusions about sunsets and other natural phenomena. Spectroscopy, the correspondent suggests, is to be preferred to the idiosyncratic response of a human observer: colors should be calculable. He dismisses the recently-published sunset-speculations of a fellow amateur contributor, the painter Robert Leslie, as being founded more on conjecture and faulty observation than on measured analysis, and sharpens his own critique of observational subjectivity by insisting that the issue is not merely “a question of terms,” but that unsystematic examination can become “a hazardous thing” capable of reversing scientific progress.

And then this disciplined scientist becomes Gerard Manley Hopkins: “If a very clear, unclouded sun is gazed at, it often appears not convex, but hollow; – swimming, like looking down into a boiling pot or swinging pail, or into a bowl of quicksilver shaken: and of a lustrous but indistinct hue.” Read the rest of this entry »

Creative Commons License This site uses a heavily modified version of Bryan Helmig's Magatheme. Work at by Bethany Nowviskie is always CC-BY. Want to know why? The falling letters are by Wayne Graham. He kindly made them to replace a set I designed in Flash in the late 1990s and had in place for more than 17 years. Not a bad run! Ave atque vale.